We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Chris Brown
To: Nate Jackson, Barry Petchesky
As a general matter, I believe that the future of football analysis will be heavily dependent on statistics and probability. I agree with Nate, however, that it's both unrealistic and likely even undesirable that NFL coaches will begin making all their decisions only after The Fourthdownulator Has Spoken—the idea that during a timeout before a crucial fourth down you'd see Jim Schwartz or Mike Tomlin, instead of huddling with their teams or screaming into their headsets, casually standing to the side and punching inputs into their iPhone fourthdownulator app, looking like the loneliest guest at the party. (Imagine the postgame interview possibilities: "Yeah, we really shouldn't have gone for it on fourth, but I hit the button for the wrong quarter when I put it into my iPhone. My bad.")
I'm certainly glad we have this kind of analysis, if for no other reason than that it serves as a counterweight for decisions like Mike Smith's. Immediately after the Falcons had failed, a cascade of Terry Bradshaws announced, "Bad decision," on the basis of zero analysis whatsoever. In this case I take the fourthdownulator analysis to simply offer backup that it wasn't a flatly wrong decision, that in fact it was a perfectly intuitive choice that Smith might've known from experience: In a sudden-death situation, if the Falcons punt and give the ball to Drew Brees, there is a high chance they never get the ball again; in any event, there's a very high chance the Falcons convert on fourth down. All of that is sound and you don't necessarily need an app to know it. Indeed, in football, the actual probabilities are going to vary from the averages, anyway, based on the opponent, the matchups, and even, to an extent, the flow of the game. A coach is going to have to make a guess as to what gives his team the highest chance to win. (If I have any reservations about Smith's call it's simply that failure to succeed on fourth gives his team few "outs": If they don't get it, they will lose, unless the Saints simply blow it. But the debate between making decisions based on a pure expected value versus making decisions to minimize a catastrophic event is a bit esoteric for this space.)
Nate, you say there's nothing wrong with football coaches being the wild man at the blackjack table, rather than making every bet based on what that little card says. But the interesting question is why we expect them to be any different. Despite the handwringing about certain coaching decisions, head coaches in the NFL are not selected based on the results of a fourth-down-simulation quiz given to them every year. Indeed, before becoming a head coach, there is essentially nothing in a coach's career path and training—from glorified unpaid go-fer to position coach to coordinator—that prepares him to make a split-second decision, with the game on the line in overtime, based on the shifting probabilities of his team's offense, special teams, and defense versus whatever his opponent is capable of and is currently doing. These are guys evaluated and elevated for their ability to teach specific techniques and skills, motivate players to play hard, and do some scheming. Teams do, but they also really don't, win and lose games purely based on such decisions; coaches spend 99 percent of their time worrying about that same stuff they always worried about: technique, their team's energy and commitment, and schemes. But the commentary is the reverse. Indeed, every coach I've ever spoken with glows about Andy Reid's knowledge of football, whether going back to his days at BYU or even as an assistant in the NFL, but it's also pretty clear that everyone in Philadelphia with a copy of Madden—doesn't matter if it's Madden 2012 or 1995—is pretty sure he can handle clock management and fourth-down decisions better than Reid can. And the Madden player might have more experience with those situations.
It's also, I suppose, a testament to the meaninglessness and arbitrary nature of football—or maybe the imperial nature of being a head coach in the NFL—that, when asked about these kinds of decisions, coaches frequently give almost no analysis whatsoever, even as a purely cover-your-ass measure. Decision-makers in government or business make gut calls all the time, but they at least have the grace to give the appearance of having consulted all manner of sources, having analyzed all sorts of esoteric data, having broken down and quantified every possible angle. It's no surprise to hear from Nate that Eric Mangini is steeped in a world of fuzzy math, quizzing his team on useless trivia, but it is a surprise that, during the many times that his questionable decisions came under scrutiny, he never threw up the same smokescreen to deflect criticism. It's just further evidence that, in ways both good and bad, sports operate in a different universe from the rest of the world.
To turn to a guy famous for fourth-down decisions, Bill Belichick and his Patriots crushed Rex Ryan and his Jets on Sunday night, quieting talk of both the impending doom of the Patriots and the surge of the Jets. In watching the game I was struck by two things. First, that the Patriots managed to basically destroy the Jets despite being sort of awful in several phases of the game—they can't run the ball, and the defense, while it made some plays, is clearly a bizarre assortment of castaways and free agents (at one point late in the game, receiver Julian Edelman lined up as a slot defensive back). To this, I can only ask if a team with such obvious flaws can ultimately take home a Super Bowl. Maybe it's the inverse of the Tim Tebow problem: In the Patriots' case, the one thing we do know they have is a quarterback. But the second thing that jumped out to me is how, by adding tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Belichick has completely reshaped the style and personality of New England's offense.
Elite NFL teams tend to build around the virtues of their most problematic opponents, and since Rex Ryan took over the Jets and designed his defense around taking target practice at Tom Brady, Belichick has had his eye on the Jets. Going into the 2009 season, the Patriots—with Randy Moss on the outside, Welker on the inside, and the near-undefeated season fresh in their mind—had essentially become a pass-first spread-offense team in the style of some of the more prominent college teams. Brady made checks at the line and lined up primarily in shotgun, and the offense relied on quick passes and hot reads to defeat blitzes, with Moss the ever-present threat to burn the defense deep. Since they typically lined up with three receivers and only one running back to keep Wes Welker in the slot, Ryan was able to specifically attack Brady's pass protection and take away the run along the way. He truly forced Belichick's hand in terms of play-calling: New England's spread-to-pass became predictable instead of fearsome, and it was up to Brady on almost every play to throw the ball before some unblocked rusher took him down again. So Belichick went out and drafted both Gronkowski and Hernandez.
Hernandez is more of a pure receiver, and his chief advantage is as a substitution/personnel problem: If he's in the game, you don't know if he'll line up as a tight end or if he'll split wide so that Welker can play the slot, forcing you to decide whether to put your cornerback on Welker or Hernandez, potentially creating advantages in both the run and passing game. But Gronkowski is a true triple-threat from the tight-end spot: He can block, he can go out for passes, and he can even block and then go out for delayed passes. Multiple defenders have to keep their eyes on him. And against such a threat, Ryan can't sell out with the multifarious blitzes overloaded to one side or the other, simply in an all-out effort to get Tom Brady. The presence of the tight ends—where will they line up, what will they do—dictates terms back to Rex Ryan, who would much rather cut loose and go on carrying his father's torch as the destroyer of pretty-boy quarterbacks.
And this is just one example of what has become a necessity for NFL offenses as defenses have gotten, well, weirder; you must have players who can dictate terms back to the defense by presenting odd matchup problems. The most obvious examples of these guys are the hybrid receiver tight ends like Gronkowski and Hernandez, but also the Saints' Jimmy Graham, the Packers' Jermichael Finley, and, yes, still Tony Gonzalez of the Falcons. (Indeed, Belichick has talked about the difficulties Gonzalez presented in putting together a defensive game plan, and Gonzalez may have even inspired the coach to focus more closely on tight ends.) Dynamic runner/receivers like Darren Sproles also create issues for defenses.
Unpredictability is the key. Is a play a run or a pass? Which direction is it going? How will it work? And these hybrid guys give you options in ways that even great players with more specific roles cannot. They simplify defenses by making them uncertain. Indeed, in a strange way, this same phenomenon may be all that Denver is hoping to get from Tebow: that by being a threat to run or pass (well, sort of), defenses have to play more simply, thus giving a less-talented offense a chance to succeed.
Of course, the problem for NFL teams—and for college or high-school teams that want to run a "pro-style offense"—is finding players who can do all these things. So it's one thing to say they are the future and another to actually find enough people to make that future a reality. Just like at the quarterback position, there are simply more job openings than there are qualified candidates. Wanted: 6-foot-6 freak athlete who can run a 4.5 40, has incredible hands, is willing and able to block 300-pound defensive ends, and can immediately memorize a 1,000-page playbook. No appointment necessary.