Belichick and Average Situations

A wide range of commentators have weighed to argue that yes, Bill Belichick made the right call to go for it on 4th and 2 from their own 28 yard line. Many of them use fancy numbers like this post from Advanced NFL Stats:

With 2:00 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A 4th and 2 conversion would be successful 60% of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position. The total WP for the 4th down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

But here’s the problem with football stats — and apologies to people who listen to me bloviate every Sunday about this — but first, they’re based on relatively small sample sizes. An NFL season is 16 games, and in such a small collection of data points, almost anything can happen that would be less likely to occur in a set of 82 games with tons of possessions like the NBA or a 162 game baseball season. So there’s that.

But outside of these sort of larger epistemic questions though, there’s the problem of using this data in real world situations. Simply put, not all 4th and 2 opportunities are created equally. No matter what the statistical averages suggest, there’s no such thing as an “average” situation in sports in the way there is in blackjack or craps. There are 4th and 2 situations when you’re up big, when you’re down big, when you’re playing a bad team, when you’re playing a good team, when your offense is tired, and many, many, many others, all of which are markedly different playing experiences and will lead to markedly different outcomes.

This lack of a truly “average” situation is only complicated by the limits of  inference attributable to historical performances in sports. For example, there’s no theoretically sound reason that it would be impossible for a football team to convert on literally every single fourth down opportunity they faced, or, alternatively to fail on every single opportunity. Unlikely? Of course. But the point remains that there’s no immutable law of probability binding these outcomes. As such, how much faith can you really place in a 9 percent increase in Win Probability — especially when you only have 16 games to play?

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Job Changes People Talk About But Ultimately Don’t Matter At All

Apparently Tony Kornheiser is out on MNF and will be replaced by John Gruden. Whatever. This reminds me that as much time as people devote to complaining about the broadcasters on MNF, it’s not like they have even the slightest impact on whether or not you wind up watching the game.

Most Annoying Sports Cliche of 2008

Can we all agree that there is very little about football which resembles chess? I just heard Ron Jaworski describe the relationship between a receiver and a corner as chess match on the basis that the corner will occasionally try to bait the quarterback into making a poor decision. While it’s true that this strategy is common in chess, it also happens to be a tactic in virtually any game that isn’t a pure test of technical skill or luck. You can bait an opponent in basketball, you can bait an opponent in poker, you can bait an opponent checkers, and shit, you can even bait your opponent in asshole. I think it’s pretty obvious that the outcome of a football game has much more to do with luck and raw physical ability than it does with cunning strategy. Conversely, a game of chess begins with the exact same pieces which are capable of doing the exact same things and thus, strategy is the only thing that matters.

Please, sports media, do something useful for once and come up with a new phrase.

The Racial Playbook

Mark Salter, one of John McCain’s longest serving aides and author of John McCain’s books, had this to say in defense of McCain:

“McCain won’t even use Rev. Wright, out of an abundance of caution. So he raises the next guy, Bill Ayers, and you know what we get? We get called racist. How is that racist? You got me.”

I don’t think it’s fair to say that John McCain’s campaign has been explicitly racist, but Salter basically makes the case for how it has deployed implicit racism. Essentially, John McCain realizes that highlighting Rev. Wright may provoke backlash, so he has “rais[ed] the next guy” to make the same exact point. But what, ultimately, is the difference so long as the same point is made?

To use an extended sports analogy, the object of an offense in football is to score more points than the other team. Generally, there are two ways to score more than the opponent. On one end of the spectrum, you can choose the play that offers the highest probability of scoring on every single down. On the other extreme, you can choose the play that offers the highest probability of maintaining possession of the ball. Insofar as your method for scoring more points than your opponent changes your intent, there’s no inherent difference, but there are tactical considerations to be made.

A pass heavy attack allows for quick scoring, but poses potentially greater risk of backfire. Running the ball limits your opponent’s ability to score, but also limits your own ability to score. Running the ball is the more cautious approach, but ultimately, the object is still to score more points than your opponent. Salter  essentially argues that because the McCain campaign didn’t “pass” the ball, their offense wasn’t trying to score more than their opponent. This argument might be viable were the options given to an offense only running or passing, but this is not the case.

The obvious choice were one concerned with avoiding charges of racism would be punting on first down and rejecting the metaphysical purpose of football entirely, instead choosing to play soccer or baseball or basketball. But since the McCain campaign never rejected the premise of the game, they have blocked this avenue of absolution.

The Most Important Poll

There are quite a number of polls these days, some more important than others. But one poll I think we can all agree is of paramount importance is the “Who Would You Rather Watch a Football Game With Poll“, which Barack Obama is leading 50 – 47. 

Frankly, I’m surprised more people wouldn’t watch a game with McCain, based solely on his undeniable advantage in “free booze”, secured when he dropped his disfigured wife for a beer heiress 18 years his junior. On the other hand, he probably doesn’t play fantasy, and in the likelihood he’s rooting for another team, he’d probably try to kick your team out of the NFL. Or as one of the poll respondents put it:

“I think he’d be fun to sit back with and hear his experiences, all his stories,” said Kyle Ferguson, 28, a Republican from Santa Rosa, Calif., who picked McCain. But reflecting a sense some voters have of McCain based on the complaints of a few Senate colleagues, he added warily, “I bet he’d probably get pretty angry and lit up if his team was losing.”

Sports Writers Are a Clever Bunch

I’m not a sports writer for a major media outlet, so maybe there’s some sort of editorial directive aimed at maximizing tired or cliched jokes I don’t know about. But seriously, I get it, Jason Taylor was on Dancing With the Stars, it’s not that funny.

John Clayton, ESPN.

Jason Taylor was destined to dance with Dan Snyder and the Redskins, but it took the first day of practice for Taylor’s reality show to head to Washington.

Mike Wise, The Washington Post.

Here they go again. From the people who brought you Neon Deion, Snyder Productions’ newest, big-name venture: Dalliance With The $tar$…

… And then along came Jason Taylor, merengue-ing into town, two-stepping away from that smashmouth puritan Bill Parcells, who doesn’t watch “Dancing With the Stars” and cared for Taylor’s extracurricular activities about as much as John Lithgow cared for Kevin Bacon in “Footloose.”…

…Either way, Washington traded for another big name yesterday and put the new organizational mantra of patiently building through the draft on hiatus. Out of necessity, Daniel Snyder has entered into another dalliance with a star.

Reid Cherner & Tom Weir, USA Today.

Good morning and welcome to Monday, July 21, 2008.  As Jason Taylor learned on Dancing With the Stars, it takes two to tango.  And Bill Parcells wasn’t a willing partner.

Jay Glazer, FOXsports.com.

Jason Taylor is on the verge of dancing on over to the Washington Redskins.