Football: not yet a science (though maybe it should be)

Diane,

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve cut back on the NFL and sports-related blogging.  They are always my least-viewed and -commented-upon entries, no matter how much work I put into them*.  So naturally, my ego is attempting to protect itself by strangling my typin’ fingers every time they start a sentence with “The Colts” or “This week’s Monday Night Football matchup” or “Norv likes to pass!”**

But every once in a while, the fingers break free and do what they like.  Up yours, ego – it’s pigskin day!

What I’d like to muse about this morning is wisdom and math.  Wisdom comes in two varieties: conventional (as in what you do by default because everybody does it and thinks it works) and challenging (as in a challenge to convention, in those cases where conventional wisdom is perceived as a failure or a fraud).  There’s no middle road: you’re stodgy and conservative, or a maverick and a free-thinker.  Of course, football is one of those rare areas where you can jump back and forth as often as you like, being completely conservative on one topic and a rebellious renegade on another, barely distinguishable topic; you can even bill yourself as both and football fans won’t bat an eye.  That’s the whole nature of the sport.  It’s completely and utterly set in its ways, but there’s a revolution almost every year.

And about that math – well, math is the end of the long and winding road wisdom leads us down.  Math is what turns our walkin’ boots into a futuristic flying car, so that where we’re going, we don’t need roads.  You get me, Marty?  What I’m saying is this: wisdom is just fancy-ass guesswork designed to help you get by.  Math is the actual answer.  And in conclusion, 1.21 gigawatts?!?!

Let me wrap up this rambling introduction and move on to the meat of my beef with the football commentariat.  (-erati.)  I read quite a bit of NFL commentary, and a recurring theme of these columns is an argument that can be summarized thusly: “Coach Blank did X and then The Generic Football Guys lost.  Everybody does X in situation A.  But really situation A calls for action Y.  Coach Blank and all those other coaches out there – listen to me, I know what I’m talking about!  Next time, don’t do X; do Y!”  King Kaufman from Salon.com likes these kinds of arguments.  Gregg Easterbrook (Tuesday Morning Quarterback) of ESPN.com LOVES these kinds of arguments.  Dr. Z of Sports Illustrated (and may he recover quickly from his recent strokes) has been known to dabble.  There are few of the major “personality” guys who don’t have hobbyhorses in this field that they like to occasionally saddle up and ride.

Kaufman has frequently argued that it’s dumb for a coach to order a go-ahead field goal try on third down, with ten or more seconds left, near the end of the game.  His argument is that the chance of blowing the try in such a way that you recover the ball and get another shot on 4th down is significantly less than the chance that you make the kick on 3rd, and then the other team returns the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown that gives them back the win.  Therefore, wait until 4th down and/or until there are just a few seconds on the clock to call your timeout and kick it.

Easterbrook’s favorite subjects are legion.  Long and loud has he railed against blitzing, particularly big-blitzing (sending 2 or more extra guys at the quarterback) in 3rd and long situations.  He contends that the average NFL play gains a certain number of yards; if you just play your base defense and hold them to that, theoretically you force a 4th down and a punt.  He also is strongly in favor of going for it on 4th down more, especially 4th-and-short around midfield or in opposition territory, and pretty much always when you are losing and in the 4th quarter. 

These aren’t the only examples, but they’ll do.  The point I’d like to make is this: why hasn’t some serious stat nerd stepped in and definitively answered these (and other) questions for us?  I’m tired of reading about it; I’d like to just KNOW which decision is the correct one.  I imagine that in some cases the necessary statistics haven’t been kept up until now, which would mean some research into recaps and play-by-play charts would be necessary.  But surely a few hours of work looking into the last few years of games would bring resolution to many of these disputes.

Wanna know whether or not to kick a field goal on third down with ten seconds left, or on fouth down with three remaining?  Why don’t we look at every game from the last x years and compare the results?  Or about that big blitz-on-third-down thing, NFL teams play scores of third-and-long situations every year; it should be easy to find out the success rate when blitzing.  We could even break it down into expected blitzes (from a team like the Eagles, who blitz constantly) and unexpected (from, say, the Colts, who almost never do).  The decision to punt or go for it on 4th has already been worked over pretty heavily by the number-crunching site Football Outsiders and others; I don’t know how we’re even still talking about this (except perhaps that a lot of NFL coaches just aren’t paying attention – but that’s a whole different subject). 

One particular issue that gets a lot of play week after week is whether or not to ice a field goal kicker.  “Icing a kicker” just means calling a timeout after the team has lined up in their field goal formation, before the snap.  The conventional wisdom is that it makes the kicker think for an extra minute about the burden of what he’s about to do (win or lose the game for his team), and might make the guy choke.  The challenge to that wisdom is basically, “Hey, these guys are pros – this probably has no effect, and it might even help them in some way.”  After last night’s New Orleans/Chicago game in which the Saints tried unsuccessfully to ice Bears kicker Robbie Gould, he said this in the post-game: “I like it.  I get an opportunity to get a warmup kick in but also see and judge exactly how the wind is blowing. For me, I wish every coach would do that and give me the opportunity.” 

That’s right from the horse’s mouth, but in this case we don’t even have to listen to the horse.  Go to the tape!  Go to the play-by-plays!  It can’t be that hard to find out what percentage of the time a kicker makes a go-ahead, game-ending kick when a timeout is called by the opposing team right before he kicks, and what percentage of the time he makes it when timeout is not called.  It’s simple math.  And once we know the answer, every coach can just look at their notes and make the right decision – and we can stop having the same stale argument every Monday/Tuesday/Friday morning, all fall and winter long.

* Fifteen, twenty minutes tops – including frequent pee breaks.

** Longtime readers will recognize this as an enthusiastically unfunny running joke.

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