Smart Notes 2/25/2010

The elder Kiffin. Despite the weirdness of his recent career path — due entirely from following his son around — Monte Kiffin remains both one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the game as well as a source of hope for the fans whose team is (currently) coached by Lane. So it is with the excellent Trojan Football Analysis, which adroitly summarizes Monte’s defensive philosophy.

2. Tebow’s motion, cont’d. Tebow is changing his release. I’m fine with this: it needed to be done, it appears (from the few clips I’ve seen) that he’s getting good coaching and things are improving, and if he didn’t the story threatened to derail him from getting drafted at all. And most importantly, if it works, he should be a better quarterback. Two points. One, realistically, Tebow just has three timelines with all this. The first is his pro day. If he can improve enough there to get drafted somewhere, then that’s a major hurdle. And then guess what? He has a long time to work on these mechanics and get better — his next two deadlines would be (a) preseason when he might play a bit, and (b) the eventual day he would get in a regular season game, which might be years hence. So while this overhaul requires a quick turnaround for his pro day, it is just one day and involves throwing in a controlled environment to receivers he knows, like Riley Cooper. (Of course, this fact that Tebow needed to learn to play pro quarterback is why I said he should have gone pro last year and sat the bench working on these mechanics all year.)

Second, the Senator rounds up the minor dust up regarding who is to blame for Tebow’s crappy throwing motion. If there must be blame for this, I blame Tebow, though I don’t think that’s really fair either. Basically, Meyer’s job was to win games, and Tebow is the all-time greatest; yes there was some spin in hiring Scott Loeffler, but Loeffler was basically told not to mess with Tebow’s motion. (And as others have pointed out, they had limited practice time together.) But Tebow regressed during his time at Florida. Here’s what I saw from Tebow, especially as a senior: Instead of trusting his footwork, his release, and his progressions, he would drop back, look for the first receiver, and then simply try to buy time and scan the field. Quite literally from one side to the other, the way you would do in a backyard game where each receiver is just making up his route. This is why he was so often late with passes; he wasn’t throwing on time. And as he became fatigued his footwork regressed and he relied on an increasingly large wind-up to try to deliver the ball with velocity. Remember, it’s much easier to have good form if you’re throwing on rhythm. Can you blame Meyer for this? To an extent, sure. But remember who you’re talking about, the most celebrated and maybe the most successful quarterback ever. A guy who won games on moxie and guile alone. This business about dropping back, scanning the field, looking for Hernandez or Cooper, and then throwing on the move with a huge wind-up became part of his game. In any event, he has time to rectify the problems, and I wish him luck in doing so.

3. HGH testing in the NFL? It’s on the table in current negotiations.

4. How do you evaluate kickers? The WSJ Numbers guy chimes in, as does the Sabermetric Research Blog:

And that just seems wrong to me. League-wide, a 51-yard field goal attempt is successful only about 55% of the time. Admittedly, Stover has been worse than that, but still, when you try something that succeeds only about half the time, and then it winds up failing, all that second-guessing isn’t really called for.

5. Bench the quarterback! It was clear that the Packers of Lombardi’s day could only rise to the top if they did one thing: bench Bart Starr. Or so says a fan letter from 1959, from Pro Football Reference Blog.

6. Fire zones. Brophy with more wisdom (and video).

7. Regression to the mean in college football. More from the Numbers Guy:

Sports Illustrated has a very rosy view of the future for most of this year’s top college football teams. The magazine, in a roundup of non-BCS bowl games, assigned an up arrow to those teams that will be on the rise next year, and a down arrow to those that will be on the decline. Of 56 teams rated, 36, or 64%, got an up arrow. But it’s likely that most of these teams will see a decline next year.

The reason is a statistical principle called regression to the mean that is critical in sports, yet poorly understood. A player’s or team’s actual performance is an imperfect indicator of underlying ability. Luck — or statistical noise, if you prefer — also plays a role. Generally those who do well are better than average, but they’ve also probably had more luck than average. And the opposite is true of players or teams that do badly. SI . . . isn’t accounting for the underlying forces that are pushing these above-average teams — losing teams need not apply — back to average. After all, some of the teams that missed the bowl games this year are going to qualify next year.

[C]onsider the fate of the prior season’s non-BCS bowl teams. In the 2008-2009 season, these 58 teams combined to go 486-275, with 29 bowl wins. The next year, that same group went 436-311, with 17 bowl wins. And 16 of the teams missed bowl games entirely. Of course, some were indeed on the rise — 19, or nearly a third, had better records than the year before and five qualified for BCS bowl games (two of them won). But bowl teams have more room to fall than to rise. Central Michigan saw the biggest improvement, from 8-5 with a bowl loss to 12-2 with a bowl win. But five bowl teams fell all the way to 2-10.

It’s possible that some of the teams with worse records still were on the rise, finishing with a worse record because of fluky results or a tougher schedule. But the decline in cumulative results suggests that most teams did indeed regress to the mean — as this year’s bowl teams are likely to do, as well.

I agree with this, but would only add that path dependence is likely a strong mitigant of mean regression when it comes to the biggest BCS teams, due to recruiting advantages and so on.

8. Is Adrian Peterson a liability? So asks Advanced NFL Stats.

9. Roger Aumann on applying game theory to business decisions. Excerpt:

Q: . . . Are you happy with the proliferation of game theory in real business?

Prof. Aumann: Of course I am happy. It is an applied science, absolutely. It is amazing how useful it is, and for all kinds of things, such as traffic, arbitration, auctions, etc. There is a lot of useful work. Let me give you another example of how game theoretic principles have been applied to business. . . . In most arbitrations you have, say, an employer and the union, and they are fighting over a wage contract and the union threatens to strike. . . . The arbitrator will listen to both sides and he will usually arrive at some sort of a compromise . . . . The incentives are for both sides to exaggerate their claims. Let us say that the union is satisfied with a payment of 85. However, they know that if they ask for 85 they might get less, so they ask for more, just like in any other bargaining situation. So they ask for 110. On the other side, the employer might be willing to pay 65, but they also know that if they offer 65 they might end up having to pay more. . . . As for the arbitrator, his range of decisions has now become enormous, and that is not good for either side. Now there is an alternative scenario that has been suggested by game theorists, called “final offer arbitration,” which essentially means that the arbitrator is not allowed to compromise; he must choose one of the two positions, exactly as they have been presented by the different parties. Some might question the logic of such a process, since many believe that the arbitrator is there in order to compromise. But look at the incentives . . . . [E]ach side is [now] motivated to present as reasonable, as moderate, a claim as possible. If the union claims 110 and the employer decides to go to 65, the arbitrator will realize that given the details of the case, 65 is much more reasonable. The arbitrator cannot increase that, so he would award 65. Consequently, the union will decide not to make an unreasonable claim, and may even be willing to claim a little less than what it really wants. As a result, the offers of both sides would be very close to each other . . . The implication is that both sides become more truthful, and perhaps even a little more forthcoming. This is a very simple application of game theory, but it explains the basis of game theory, and that is to build a system where the sides have an incentive to do what you want them to do; in this case you want them to agree to be as close to each other as possible and give the arbitrator as much information as possible.

  • Regarding regression to the mean, I don’t doubt it at all. However, I think making the case for it gets hampered by the term “luck.” It has a negative connotation in regards to sports, and it can make people reject an argument out of hand because of it.

    “External circumstances” is probably a better wording. Take the receiver example. If an offense goes from being pass-heavy to run-heavy and a receiver’s production drops, then that’s bad luck from his perspective. From the perspective of the coaching staff though, it wasn’t luck at all. It was a change of strategy that had nothing to do with luck. Or perhaps the team downgraded at quarterback because of free agency. It’s bad luck for the receiver, but it’s not random chance that the quarterback made a decision to leave. Maybe defenses paid more attention to him after his breakout year. That’s bad luck to him, but it’s not luck at all to the opposing defensive coordinators.

    That’s why “external circumstances” fits better. I think for a lot of people, just saying “luck” implies that it’s luck from everyone’s perspective when that’s clearly not the case.

  • Year2: Although I agree that “external circumstances” is an issue, I really do think what the WSJ Numbers Guy is talking about is luck, not just injuries, or free agency and so on. You can use the term variance if you like, but it’s just the random, probabilistic variance embedded in a lot of football circumstances.

    One is bounces of the ball. A guy fumbles and either his own team recovers, the defense recovers on the spot and falls on it, or it bounces up into a guy’s arms and he runs it back for a touchdown. The fumble itself was a probabilistic event, but where it bounced truly was: there was a percentage chance any of those things could happen. Or you have a kicker who is a 75% kicker. One year, all his misses tend to happen in games where it doesn’t matter; the next, he kicks a higher percentage (say, 85%), but his four or five misses all come at crucial times, thus deciding some games. And so on. Between any two teams there are a bunch of lucky or essentially randomized outcomes, even if they are strongly tilted in one team’s favor — i.e. Florida plays Vanderbilt. Vandy should lose based on some kind of expected outcome of the game and all the plays in it, but there’s also a set of “bounces” and unexpected but possible outcomes that could result in a victory for them.

    Again, I see what you’re saying that when people hear “lucky” they think the person means, hey, the winner and loser of every game just got lucky and that can’t be true! But that’s not what is meant. It’s that we have an expected outcome based on all the players, strategies, and so on, but lower probability events are not impossible events, and so anything can happen. If you look at the NFL in particular, where the teams are quite even, almost every “game” comes down to luck, though you can’t really say that about season long won/loss records. I know it’s a weird thing to think about but this is different than external circumstances, though those play a factor too.

  • JonE

    If Tebow doesn’t plan on making an impact in the NFL, I think you are right that you can’t blame Meyer for his mechanics. If Tebow is serious about playing in the NFL, which it sounds like he is, Meyer is guilty of winning at all costs, including potentially at the cost of his QB’s future.

    And I think your praise of Tebow’s moxie and guile is misplaced. The guile probably has more to do with the option system. Moxie is more worthy praise, although it could be diminished by the fact that Tebow is as Meyer once said, “a physical phenomenon”. He has DE size and just enough speed that he is a mismatch. He often carried the ball 3-4 yards and could them fall forward for extra simply because he is bigger than many defenders. And he can throw fairly well.

    His mechanics corrections are critical to his success in the NFL, I think. The opposition has more moxie and guile than he has ever seen. I personally think he’ll be exposed like Alex Smith was.

  • 4.0 Point Stance

    That 1959 letter not only pans Bart Starr, it also dismissively refers to this new coach at Alabama named Paul Bryant, who “hasn’t done much.”

    “But remember who you’re talking about, the most celebrated and maybe the most successful quarterback ever.” I don’t know if you mean this honestly or are kind of poking fun at Tebowphilia. But I think it’s dead on. The NFL’ers may not like to hear this, because they think the NFL is the end-all be-all, but in my opinion Tebow’s incredible success in college renders what he does in the NFL more or less irrelevant. The man is already an all-time football legend.

  • I get where the argument for “luck” comes from; I could write 5000 words on all the bad luck for my Gators in the 2008 Florida-Ole Miss game (+22 on the year but lost three turnovers, only missed XP of the season and lost by 1, etc.). Later this off season I’m going to do a series on what teams stand out as being set up for a regression to the mean.

    It just seems like he overemphasized luck. The image caption in the article brings up Tulsa and Ball State and how they fell in 2009. Sure, luck played a part in that. I’d argue that losing coaches (like Gus Malzahn and Brady Hoke) and players (like Nate Davis) was the more important factor. When Central Michigan regresses to the mean in 2010, it will probably have more to do with losing Dan LeFevour than luck.

  • looks like Tebow has opted out of all drills today….
    http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/35584202/ns/sports-player_news/

  • stan

    Tebow — the most successful QB ever? Even given the incredibly stupid formulation that a QB is somehow the only player on the field responsible for wins and losses, Tebow doesn’t make it. Yes, he was lucky to play on teams with an extraordinary amount of talent, especially on defense. If that’s the definition of a ‘successful QB’, what’s the point? How many times did Tebow’s team have less that talent than the opponent? Zero.

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