I understand Americans hate math. I largely share that sentiment and understand no one wants computation to interfere with a day off work sitting on the couch, gorging on food and drink while watching large men collide at high rates of speed on television.
Hypothetically, me having to figure out an algebraic equation would absolutely make my NFL experience much worse, but what in reality makes the experience much worse for me is the discussion around analytics. Every time I hear Troy Aikman say the word “analytics” on Thursday Night Football, I cringe as if I were listening to him deliver a halftime monologue on social issues.
There will always be some tension between those who embrace modern analytics versus those who want the game played the way that Vince Lombardi coached it more than half a century ago. I had football coaches in the early 2000s still saying that if you pass the ball only three things can happen, and two of them are bad. As wrong as that opinion is, if you were involved in football at a high level I won’t fault you for having it, but what has to stop are inane conversations like the one that was on NFL Today this past Sunday.
Cowher’s “paralysis by analysis” comment did turn this ridiculous segment into truly artful ignorance, but I feel we should all have the same question after watching that video: What were they talking about!?
I don’t spend much of my Sundays watching postgame pressers, but I hear or read a fair amount of what goes on in them, and I’ve never heard a coach explain away a decision by saying, “the analytics told me to do it.” What I did hear was Baltimore Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh explaining after Sunday’s loss why he decided to attempt a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown with just under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. “You do it at that time because you’re gonna have to win a two-point conversion. So you understand, if you get it or don’t get it early, you understand where you’re at, going from there. How many possessions you’re gonna need and what you’re gonna have to do.”
That… makes a lot of sense. With more than half of the fourth quarter remaining, it’s better to miss on the two-point conversion attempt at that point, and know two scores are still necessary to win the game, rather than go for two with under a minute remaining, fail to convert, and suddenly the game is virtually over.
The Steelers made a similar decision twice in their loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday. Down two possessions after a touchdown they attempted a two-point conversion with just under 12 minutes remaining and missed. Coach Mike Tomlin told the media that his team went for two in that situation because he felt they were “too thin” at the line of scrimmage to win in overtime.
Guess what? It damn near worked, even though the Vikings scored on the very next possession. The Steelers scored with a touchdown with just over four minutes remaining and converted a two-point attempt. They would later have a final drive that ended with an incomplete pass as time expired from the Vikings’ 12-yard line.
Last week, in Jarrett Bell’s USA Today column, Hall of Fame coaches Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells said that they believe current coaches are taking too many risks because they rely too heavily on analytics. Clearly, Johnson and Parcells’ risk aversion worked in 1986, 1990, 1992, and 1993, but this game is different.
Games have to be won in the margins a lot of times, because the difference in talent between the teams is much thinner in the current NFL due to free agency and the hard salary cap. It is hard to build teams that are able to overwhelm their opponents with talent, especially in the case of Johnson’s Cowboys. Decisions like going for two with 10 minutes remaining in a fourth quarter while down nine gives a team as much room for error as possible, and that still may not be the decision for every team.
If a team has a strong defense and is only down that much because their turnover prone quarterback threw a pick-six then maybe they should trust their defense to give them three more possessions and not risk a turnover. These decisions are not one size fits all, and they’re not an Excel spreadsheet on a coach’s tablet designed by an MIT grad, or giant board like the one that Chip Kelly used to call plays at Oregon.
Analytics, or specifically in this case win probabilities, is simply one of the many tools that can be used to give a team a better chance to win. Yes, Phil Simms, Troy Aikman, and all the rest of you stuck in the 20th century: ignoring the data will quite literally make a team worse.