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.
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.
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: