USC’s late touchdown vs. UCLA: fair or foul?

From ESPN:

When Matt Barkley kneeled down to end Southern California’s (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 24 AP) victory in the final minute, UCLA defiantly stopped the clock with a timeout.

So the Trojans let ‘er rip, throwing a long touchdown pass and then celebrating it with a taunting ferocity that brought the Bruins onto the field on the verge of a brawl.

The last 90 seconds of Los Angeles’ 79th crosstown showdown had more action than the first 58 1/2 minutes, even if it was just a few extra fireworks at the close of USC’s workmanlike 28-7 victory Saturday night.

See for yourself the setting:

So the question is: Was that cool for Pete Carroll to do? Was it cool for Neuheisel to call the timeouts? What is the proper response?

Smart Links 11/25/2009

1 Follow me on twitter. Self promotion yes, but I probably won’t be blogging much over the next few days but I hope to tweet some commentary on the football games tomorrow and through the weekend. Click here for my twitter feed.

2. Pro Football Reference Blog on the “quarterback problem.” Namely, analyzing the links (or lack thereof) between evaluating talent, ultimate performance, and how the data can be skewed by a high draft position resulting in playing time. (I.e. the Matt Leinert problem.)

3. R.I.P. Abe Pollin. The WaPo has a nice article here.

4. Turkey myths. How many turkeys are eaten and other Thanksgiving myths.

5. The Wiz argues that college football will die because, well, brick and mortar universities will be gone “within 10 to 20 years.” Or, alternatively, there will be such demand for online classes that regular universities will simply give up on football. I’m not entirely convinced. In a related story, all Fortune 500 companies and government agencies have permanently closed their offices and all employees are to report electronically. Meetings will be done by instant messenger.

6. The NY Times’s Pete Thamel interviews Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. This was pretty interesting.

7. Sad news: Northeastern has dropped its football program.

8. Behavioral economics of Thanksgiving? Ezra Klein and Mark Bittman discuss.

9. Impact of No Child Left Behind. A new paper discusses, with the conclusion that it has helped math skills somewhat but has not aided reading skills.

10. Do offenses run the ball too much on first down? Advanced NFL stats analyzes the question. I have been meaning to address the new game theory studies for some time now.

Charlie Weis as great recruiter? Not all agree

charlie-weisOne of the memes reiterated in the recent John Walters piece on Charlie Weis is that Weis is a great, tireless recruiter. For example:

No one will likely be congratulating Weis if his tenure comes to an end in the next ten days. A thank you would be warranted, though. He has graduated 96 percent of his players, tied for tops in the FBS, and returned Notre Dame to the front lines of the five-star recruiting battles. . . .

I’ve heard differently. Sure, Notre Dame gets some big-time recruits and its name alone will always put it in the running for such guys. And, surely, there are many top-flight recruits Charlie has met with personally. But consider this odd example:

Notre Dame has officially offered one of my linebackers, but no one from Notre Dame has ever spoken to the kid nor has anyone from Notre Dame ever returned any of my calls. To put it context: Will Muschamp [of Texas] returned my call, Brent Venables [of Oklahoma] returned my call, Bud Foster [of Virginia Tech] returned my call, [Michael] Barrow [of Miami] returned my call, Nick Saban returned my call, and yet no one from Notre Dame has ever returned my call. Geewhiz Charlie, that’s not exactly the way to get a kid to choose ND over other BCS schools — and then you offer him blind without so much as making contact with any coach? No. That’s not the way to go about the business.

. . . Notre Dame has zero chance at this player. I started trying to call them about him when he was a freshman. Not pushing the kid, just trying to make a contact, as I do not send film to schools without making a contact (especially on a kid that I know has 100% BCS level talent). No point in his film disc just sitting on a desk with a thousand others. And not a single coach from Notre Dame has ever returned a call in three years. Now that same kid is a Junior and he’s blue chip, [top ten] in Ohio in the 2011 class, ESPN Top 50, etc. And all of a sudden Notre Dame is interested? If he’s good enough to play at Notre Dame he’s good enough to play at other schools.

Compare that with the approach of a few other programs, including one of the names on Notre Dame’s shortlist:

Then you take programs like Cincinnati with Brian Kelly and the guy who recruits our area, Jeff Quinn [Cincinnati's offensive coordinator]. They are completely different. They pursue a personal relationship. He sends me a text telling us good luck this Friday, he knows who we play (and he might just be reading it online but still he made the effort), he calls asking how things are going, how the kid is doing, he knows the kid’s mother, grand parent’s, sister’s name, etc. He even calls me every few weeks. Now, I know he isn’t really interested in talking to me and that it’s all about my player but still it makes a difference. Ohio State, Alabama, Virginia Tech, and others all recruit about the same way as Cincinnati. Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Michigan . . . they recruit like Notre Dame.

Obviously that’s just one account, but it’s certainly an interesting one.

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.

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.)

Smart Links 11/19/2009

Best sleepers in college football of the decade. Hey that Chris Brown guy really knows what he’s talking about.

- Brophy has several good posts about pattern reading. Check them out here and here.

- Red Cup Rebellion has a really nice breakdown showing why a busted trick play looked, so, well busted. (And also has an example of what it should have looked like.)

- Mark Mangino, interrupted. The Kansas coach is getting it from all sides. Now, I don’t want to be flippant and there are some very serious allegations here, but there is something a little strange about the possibility that a football coach might get in trouble for yelling too much. But there seems to be more news to come.

- Can we thank Belichick? The Fifth Down says that the New England coach has emboldened the geeks, which is definitely a good thing. In that vein, here is a nascent, but promising, new stat blog.

- I’m very confused. I’ll listen to anyone’s ideas about this.

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.”

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.

Me on Cincinnati and Brian Kelly

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