Chuck Pagano fancies himself an old-timey football coach, even in the era of gaudy passing stats, even with Andrew Luck at his disposal. He preaches the gospel of giving the ball to the running back and pounding away. “Until they run me out of here,” he said three years ago, “that’ll be our mantra.” It very clearly remains his mantra, even if his getting run out of Indianapolis no longer feels so far away.
Here’s Pagano talking about the 5-6 Colts’ upcoming schedule, starting with the Jets on Monday night, and what he describes as “December football”—cold weather, snow, and hostile road crowds.
“Again, December football. Being able to run it gives you a chance. You look at the numbers, when we have more rushes than our opponent has, we generally win 80 percent of the time.”
I don’t need to tell you this, because you are not dumb, but I’m going to say it anyway: Cause is not effect.
The Colts and other teams tend to win when they run more because teams that are leading run the ball. Not the other way around. Rushing keeps the clock ticking down and lessens the chances of turning the ball over.
(Funnily enough, teams that call more QB kneels than their opponents win nearly 100 percent of the time.)
Somewhere, deep inside, Pagano must grasp this, because when the Colts are down two scores late, he doesn’t just call play after play for Frank Gore to make sure he has more rushing attempts than his opponent. And yet he’s always dwelled on rushing attempts. After the Colts were eliminated from the 2014 postseason (by New England, in a blowout), he went on and on about how the four winning teams in that playoff round rushed more and for more yards than the teams they beat.
“Our game, New England rushed 46 times. In all three other (divisional) games, the winners all rushed for 30 times and averaged [144.3] yards,” said Pagano. “The losing teams averaged 88 yards rushing. So, will we ever change? No. ... I think the statistics alone from this past weekend are enough to continue to make me be a believer.”
This pretty brutal confusion of cause and effect puts me in mind of an infuriating USA Today article from last month which shrugs off Corsi, or shot attempt differential, as a valid analytical measure in hockey. Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz muses openly that players can goose their Corsi numbers by taking bad shots from far away from goal: “they will throw pucks from anywhere to get a better Corsi.”
This obviously doesn’t happen—if a player is taking cynical, distant shots, it’d be clear for everyone to see. But the article’s biggest crime is in failing to understand the order of causation. A talented player does things to put himself (or a teammate) in a good position to take a shot with a decent chance of scoring. Since we can’t quite measure those good things (which include speed, situational awareness, puckhandling, and chemistry with teammates), we instead measure the second-order effect. A good player gets open, which leads to taking shots, which is illustrated by Corsi. Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill gets it: “Shots are more of a byproduct of how you play rather than a driver of performance.”
You could say the same for rushing attempts as a quantity: Often, they’re a byproduct of a team’s talent and in-game situation rather than the driver of the team’s results. To put it another way, if the Colts were better, they’d have more leads, and they’d rush the ball more to protect those leads. (And then Indy would have a better record, and Chuck Pagano would assume it’s those increased rushing attempts that caused the better record. There may be no convincing him.)
Having a ground game is a huge deal in football. It’s the best way to wear down a defensive line and to keep opponents’ pass coverage honest. But it doesn’t matter much if you can’t run the ball effectively, and the Colts’ offensive line, which doesn’t open lanes and can’t protect the quarterback, doesn’t offer Pagano that luxury. If he thinks merely running the ball over and over again into the teeth of the Jets’ front seven on Monday night is on its own a valid strategy, the Colts are going to have a new boss with a new mantra before long.