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?


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.

On Facile and Tendentious Interpreations of Provacative Data

whereweliveBrother-in-Blog Mike has a post up on an ESPN ratings gimmick SportsNation Poll reporting that given the nonexistent choice of watching an NFL Preseason Game or Game 7 of the Caps-Pens series, 37 percent of respondents would opt for the NFL Preseason Game. In a style of analysis I’m sure totally divorced from his contempt for bandwagon DC sports fans, Mike opines:

The results: A brutal 37% pick the NFL game.

The NFL game is in red and the NHL in blue.  And the states have voted remarkably similarly to how they did in the 2008 Presidential Election.  I think we can say with some confidence that excepting the coasts, Americans are not open to new sports. And even the coasts aren’t open to soccer, which is just like hockey but at half speed, with 1/10th the shots, 1/3 the goals, and no checking or fights.

First, a few minor things: your link to the poll hub was useless — learn how to take a screen shot. Second — and more to the point — is this a joke? Brutal? Shouldn’t the NHL be ecstatic about this? I mean, millions of people gather every year to watch 350 pound men-with-breasts run around touching orange cones, so in the off-chance that come April when they gather with other men to watch Roger Goodell open envelopes at the world’s biggest sausagefest, they might be able to offer some jejune conjecture about the dynamism of some oaf’s feet and impress their friends, or Mel Kiper’s hair, or whatever. When you face that sort of competition, I think you have to be pretty happy that two-thirds of the country would rather watch hockey, a sport with worse primte time broadcasting appeal than Barack Obama’s press conferences. Moreover, should we be surprised that the region inspiring teen soaps sports dramas like Friday Night Lights and Two-A-Days isn’t all that in to watching Canadian socialists skate around on ice?

Finally, I’d just like to mention that we should be wary of generalizations that begin with “…excepting the coasts, America…” Here’s an example of why we should resist conclusions drawn by ignoring a majority of the data set:  “I think we can say with some confidence that excepting the 80 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas, Americans are a rural people.” It might be more useful to make a statement like, “I think we can say with some confidence that ESPN SportsNation polls are mostly useless from an analytical perspective, and generalizations based upon their findings should be taken with commensurate seriousness.”

Football Tyranny

I understand that when professional sports leagues were first formed, the realities of geography made the concept of divisions logical, but as they exist in today’s NFL, they seem to be a tyrannical system of oppression and an insult to the American ideal of meritocracy. Also, they make it more difficult for the Redskins to reach the playoffs.

Now, obviously it would be impossible to make sure that every team experiences the exact same tests equally, but it seems like there’s something to be said for making common sense changes to ensure that 8-8 or 7-9 teams don’t make the playoffs and 10-6 teams do.

You might be thinking these are just the rumblings of a disgrunted fan of an NFC East team and you could make the argument, “what about the rivalries?”, and these might be fair points. For the first though, equal opportunity for playoff access will pay long run dividends; eventually you will be rooting for a team in a tough division. As for the rivalries, I would contend that not playing Dallas twice a year would have positive outcomes on my cardiovascular and mental health.

But you tell me.

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So Stupid It Hurts

Almost certainly, political punditry on cable networks has a pernicious effect on public opinion. The need to fill a 24-hour void yields to contrarian “balance” and the propagation of stupid arguments for the mere sake of their existence. But at least it has a point.

The intersection of politics and government in a democracy is public opinion. Whether negatively or positively, public discourse directly impacts governmental outcomes (of course, the degree of its impact is debatable, but that it exists is undeniable). However, this is absolutely untrue for sports punditry, which is arguably the most pointless and irrelevant enterprise ever undertaken by a consciousness, however you define it.

For example, I’m watching Marshall Faulk attempt to answer the question, “Will [the] Lions Win a Game?” How about, “Why is Marshall Faulk answering a question to which his opinion bears literally no impact and will moreover be resolved as simple matter of fact in the coming the weeks?” Or, even more inane, how about ESPN’s “Power Rankings”, which offer a subjective take on a completely objective matter of fact. Who’s the best team in the NFL? I’ll tell you: it’s the Tennessee Titans, they have the best record; this would remain undeniably true even if ESPN decided the Titans were the worst team in the NFL. The only possible purpose of these insipid rankings is to excite idiotic banter about the rankings themselves, an exercise so layered in stupidity, Taco Bell could sell it as a dip.

And for the sake of clarity, I’m not talking about analysis, which uses objective fact to explain past events or forecast future outcomes. This is like predicting the weather; meteorologists use objective measurements to make an educated guess about what will likely occur. By contrast, sports pundits answer the equivalent of questions like, “if it rains tomorrow, will it be sunny in two weeks?” or, “how hard do you think it’s raining?” And of course, the inanity coup de gras, “Power Rankings” answer the question “did it rain?” by instead answering the question, “how you feel about the rain,” all of which are completely irrelevant to both past and future outcomes. It’s blisteringly stupid, but even more frustrating that an entire industry is predicated almost entirely on its own self perpetuation.

Tell me I’m not the only feels this way.