Stat freaks, football, and a coach who might know better

Say what you will about the number of future vegetables professional football is making, this year’s NFL postseason has done wonders for the physical and social sciences.

You now know, of course, everything you want to know about the Ideal Gas Law and how it disproved all of the assertions around the deflate-that-must-not-be-gate scandal.

Next up: The science of statistics.

After Sunday’s incredible decision by the Seattle Seahawks not to give the ball to the game’s best runner to score what reasonably could be predicted to be an easy game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, the stat folks at FiveThirtyEight.com explained why the decision to throw the ball wasn’t so dumb.

It did so while using this explanation.

An NFL head coach’s goal isn’t to maximize his team’s chances of scoring a touchdown on a given play; it’s to maximize its chances of winning the game. That distinction seems to have gotten lost in all the rancor and rush to condemn Carroll.

And…

Sounds crazy, but he’s right: With 26 seconds left and only one timeout, the Seahawks couldn’t run Lynch three times in a row. If they rushed on second down, didn’t make it in, called timeout, rushed again, and still didn’t make it in, they’d probably be out of time before they could get off another play. So, the Seahawks had three downs to work with, but they could only run Lynch twice at most.

Which ignores the fact that the odds are good — great, even — that Marshawn Lynch, the best running back in professional football who doesn’t whip his children, would’ve scored on one of his two carries.

Opposing quarterback Tom Brady, 37 years old and slower than the Green Line, took his team to the Super Bowl this year largely on the strength of his ability to push the ball one yard.

This is all too much for Deadspin today which has had it with stat freaks.

Over the last few years, a cottage industry has grown around the Gladwellian proposition that the truth is rarely simple, and a greater understanding can be—must be!—revealed through deceptively small changes in the way we view the world, perhaps with the aid of game theory or statistics. The call-and-response is ritualized, by now. A Professional Smart Person sees some knee-jerk reaction by the public, ducks into a spreadsheet, emerges with a surprising, insightful position that quells the idiots, and onlookers cheer while cracking wry jokes about the basic human condition of stupidity. (Burn him, he’s a witch! or Behold, the dark arts of A TENTH GRADE MATH BOOK, ******.) This is often deserved!

But the contrary-insight-through-statistics rubric has become a genre, and this genre has sprung an entire fleet of websites—oh, look, including this one—dedicated to complexity for its own sake, and all of this is very far removed from sports as they’re played. The sophisticated sports analyst has learned certain truths: The on-field success or failure of an individual decision does not necessarily reflect its underlying soundness. Or: Too often, coaches choose a strategy to avoid blame, rather than to get the best chance at winning.

There’s just one flaw in this assertion.

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Bill Belichick, coach of the winning team in the Super Bowl. Three times.

“”Malcolm and Brandon [Browner], on that particular play, just made a great play. I think the criticism they’ve gotten for the game is totally out of line and by a lot of people who I don’t think are anywhere near even qualified to be commenting on it.”

Belichick doesn’t need a spreadsheet or slide rule to prove his bona fides.

He’s got this:

  • Joe

    We get that you’re a Patriots fan, but you don’t need to make every story about them.

    As for the actual story, you say “Which ignores the fact that the odds are good that … would’ve scored on one of his two carries.” But they didn’t ignore that at all. They started off the story acknowledging that, saying “Lynch is clearly an unstoppable force going up against an extremely moveable object. Why wouldn’t Carroll give him the ball?” and then explaining why it was a reasonable decision. And then they go on to say that you want to run as much time off the clock as possible before scoring, otherwise the opposing team has time to get down the field, kick a field goal, and tie it up.

    So it is all well and good for you to deride statistical analysis in favor of anecdotes, but you should at least read the article before calling it wrong.

    • Which article are you talking about, since I highlighted two of them and provided evidence that both of them could’ve been right or wrong?

      In terms of “ignoring the fact,” that refers to their assertion that “Lynch could only run the ball twice” as a means of forcing the decision to pass, not that Lynch isn’t a beast. That’s not even a part of this discussion, though I recognize the convenience of the distraction..

      It doesn’t matter that he could only have run the ball twice, because once would’ve been plenty.

      Sorry I included mention of the Patriots in a post about the Super Bowl.

      You heard they won, right?

      • Joe

        I guess I just don’t understand your statement “Which ignores the fact that the odds are good that … would’ve scored on one of his two carries,” because the article you had just cited directly addressed that scenario. So what did you mean by that? What or who was ignoring that fact? It wasn’t the article you had just quoted, which was why I surmised you might not have read it.

        • The FiveThirtyEight article assumes that giving the ball to Lynch is a “wasted play”. I would say to embrace that , you have to ignore the fact that it’s not.

          Beyond that, I suspect the answers to your questions can be found in the Deadspin article.

          • Joe

            The wasted play point is that they have either two or three tries at the end zone. if they score on any play, of course they don’t need them, but it’s nice to have a second or third try. If they throw first and don’t score, they have two runs after. If they throw first and score, everyone is happy. If they run first and don’t score, they only have one play after. So you get two runs either way, the question is do you also want a pass? You obviously don’t want the extra pass, which is fine. Pete Carroll did. And here is where stats can be helpful to decide if he made a terrible choice or not.

            The Deadspin article only proves the point. Every article he cites acknowledges that running was probably a better idea, but uses statistics to show that passing wasn’t a terrible one. That is useful information to me. Was it a bad decision? Yes. Was it a terrible decision? No. That is way more useful than you saying “I think Lynch is good so they should have run it.”

          • Right, yes, I understand the theory of the number of plays they could run with :31 on the clock.

            // No. That is way more useful than you saying “I think Lynch is good so they should have run it.”

            I love the defense of the intelligent use of statistics (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with intelligent use of statistics), and then for comparative analysis, you invent a reality so unfavorable that the analysis must be judged obviously correct.

            Every point Deadspin was making, is embodied in that single paragraph.

          • Joe

            I get 538’s article. I get Deadspin’s article. The only thing you added (aside from calling people who use stats in sports ‘freaks’) was these two sentences:

            “Which ignores the fact that the odds are good — great, even — that Marshawn Lynch, the best running back in professional football who doesn’t whip his children, would’ve scored on one of his two carries.

            Opposing quarterback Tom Brady, 37 years old and slower than the Green Line, took his team to the Super Bowl this year largely on the strength of his ability to push the ball one yard.”

            So I was trying to figure out what your point was, which I still don’t understand. My guess was that you meant: “I think Lynch is good so they should have run it.” But I guess not, based on your response?

          • I guess the point, then, is here’s two articles, pick your camp. And as always, feel free to discuss the merits of each..

  • Paul

    and no matter what, there is a phrase for all of this post game analysis; and a reason that phrase is used in a negative way. 🙂

    Monday morning…

  • paddy

    Bob,
    Have you seen this angle of the play?
    Patriots win Super Bowl on Butler’s interception: http://youtu.be/RgloErF-H2c
    The Pats knew what was coming AND Malcolm made a great play. All credit to them

    • The Patriots had run the play in practice and Malcolm got burned.

      Belichick took him aside immediately and said, “now you know what to do, right?”

  • Dave