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:

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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.

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.

Thoughts on the spread and run and shoot offenses — Hemlock’s comment

[This is part of an ongoing back and forth between me and a friend of mine who goes by “Hemlock.” He was a D-1 coach at a Big 12 school (among other places) and now is pursuing a PhD in non-football related matters. He’s a spread offense/run & shoot guru, and has a lot of great thoughts on these offenses, their role and future in football. Below is his comment; I will have a response out soon.]

I broke into coaching when I was still in high school. As a player, I had long read the writing on the wall and knew that playing on Saturdays and Sundays was not in my future. This was not painful for me since I knew all along that what I really loved about the game was its technical side. As it so happened, one day early in the summer I read an article in the local paper that a rival HS had hired a new football coach. This coach was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill gym-teacher-will-you-also-coach-football guy, but instead one whose primary focus was on coaching: he was there to coach football first, not teach during the day and collect a check. What also made him unique was his commitment to the real run and shoot offense, not what Tiger Ellison and Red Faught had their success with — a modified wing-t type offense — but the real thing run by Mouse Davis with the Detroit Lions and John Jenkins at the University of Houston. On a lark, I called the school and asked to meet with the coach.

He agreed to take me under his wing as a sort of high-school version of a graduate assistant. Much like a college graduate assistant [Ed. Note: Most colleges take a graduate student as a grunt-level assistant, which is still the best way to break into coaching at the college level; not many guys start as a full-on assistant coach], in this capacity I pretty much did what nobody else wanted to do. The trade off for me, however, was that I was exposed to the real ‘shoot — the real deal. Not only did I learn the schemes and the playbook, I learned the entire run and shoot culture, the deep grammar undergirding the offense. And, as an added bonus, I was learning it from the very people running it in college and (then) in the NFL.

I learned the offense, but I also became familiar with the familiar reservations coaches had about it. Indeed, in staff meetings someone usually stated that we could run our same four-wide schemes but with a tight-end or even with two running backs in the backfield. After all, wasn’t the “K-Gun” that the Buffalo Bills ran back in those days the run and shoot with tight-end? Didn’t they also run the choice route?

Then as now, coaches gave a whole litany of reasons explaining their desire to change the true, four-wide receiver run and shoot offense into one with another tight-end or another runningback — to unspread the spread. More often than not, these guys would say that the run and shoot would be better if you could just “run the ball downhill with more authority”. Even then I always found these arguments flawed. As a budding scholar today, one of the principles I live by is the belief that you craft your questions around the issue before you. That is, you understand the premises and foundations of the project or topic you are researching and do not ask questions that seek answers to “Y” if the topic is “X.” It’s all about establishing and understanding the terms of the debate. People who say, gee, the run and shoot is great except you can’t run the ball enough — or say the same thing about the Mike Leach/Hal Mumme Airraid offense — do not understand the whole point of the offense, the questions it seeks to answer, and the method it uses to pursue those answers. Let’s look at a few of the major questions.

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The “smash” route against man coverage

I have previously discussed the smash concept, where an outside receiver runs a short flat or “hitch” route while an inside receiver breaks to the corner. The play works well against cover two zones in particular because it puts the cornerback in a bind: if he plays the man in front of him he opens up a big are for the quarterback to throw the corner route behind him.

smash

One reason this play is useful, however, is because it does more than attack this zone aspect. Again man-to-man coverage the corner route is a very good option — so long as the throw is precise and the route is good. One reason for this is because many defenses who play man coverage use inside leverage to take away the quick slant passes that can gash them for big plays and are easy throws.

Cover 1 RobberMoreover, many man defenses use a deep free-safety or an inside “floater” or “robber” player whose job is simply to read the quarterback’s eyes. The advantage of the corner route is that the throw is away from all these inside defenders who can gum up a normal “who has beaten his man” read.

Finally, the fact that it is the inside receiver rather than the outside one who runs the corner route can get the offense some favorable matchups: Most defenses put their cornerbacks in man coverage on the outside receivers; the inside receivers are thus often guarded by safeties or linebackers or substitute “nickel back” players.

All of these advantages were on display in Penn State’s game against Michigan, as the Nittany Lions scored on the same smash concept from the same formation against the same coverage (indeed, same receiver) twice. Below is a diagram of their play, followed by video, courtesy of mgoblog.

1SMASHGIF

Below is the video:

What I’ve been reading

1Football’s Eagle and Stack Defenses, by Ron Vanderlinden, currently Penn State’s linebackers coach. This is a solid book on one particular defense, though much of it has general applicability. Fortunately you can read most of it online via Google Books, here.

2. Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow. Sad, funny, wistful (I enjoy the fake-word “wisty” as a descriptor). I’m only about halfway through but it’s written beautifully and thus is recommended. Not for everyone, I suppose, but I enjoy it.

3. Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System — and Themselves, by Andrew Ross Sorkin. This book has no real policy analysis, no economics, and no politics, and these are strengths; it is a blow-by-blow of the End Of Days Scenario that was our recent financial crisis. I wasn’t going to pick this up (it’s not a short book), but I read some of the excerpts online and found them gripping. Indeed, someone mentioned that they imagined Sorkin writing this in one long manic Kerouacian frenzy, and it does read like that. Again, this is a compliment.

4. The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy, by Bill Simmons (The Sports Guy). Someone picked this up for me. This is another of those too-long books that I nevertheless am tempted to hunker down and read. In particular, I am intrigued by this review of the book by economist/polymath Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution:

Could this be the best 736 pp. book on the diversity of human talent ever written?  It starts slow but eventually picks up steam.  It’s also devastatingly funny.  That said, if you don’t know a lot about the NBA, it is incomprehensible.  (I could not, for instance, understand the section of Dolph Schayes because that was not the NBA I know.)  In the historical pantheon, he picks David Thompson, Bernard King, and Allen Iverson as underrated.  The 1986 Boston Celtics are the best team ever, he argues.  And so on.  I found this more riveting than almost anything else I read and yes I think it is very much a work of social science, albeit in hermetic form.

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.)