Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Four-Down Football

If you don't know the story, you can read about it here. Or if you don't know the story and you're also a fan of hysterical overreactions, here. And if you'd rather just watch the damn video, here.

Basically, one year ago two days ago, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick found himself in a situation where the overwhelming majority of coaches wouldn't hesitate to zig. Belichick chose instead to zag, and a few minutes later the Patriots lost the game. I won't go (too far) into the pros and cons of the decision itself, because way too much has been said already, and also that's not the point. Suffice it to say, it was defensible. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong, but any reasonable person can recognize that neither option—punt, or go for the first down—was substantially preferable to the other.

Alas, those with strong opinions about decisions made by professional football coaches are not, by and large, reasonable people. The backlash was immediate, and it came from all corners. Sportswriters (like Jay Mariotti and Pete Prisco):
This was the most obvious decision a coach could make on any level, NFL to Pee Wee. Punt the friggin' ball.

Each and every week we see bad coaching decisions in the NFL, but never, and I mean never, have I seen one as dumb as the decision Patriots coach Bill Belichick made Sunday night.
Players (like Rodney Harrison and Trent Dilfer):
This was the worst coaching decision I have ever seen Bill Belichick make.

This decision was ludicrous…This is the coach who's always talking about making good decisions…well he needs to be held accountable.
Coaches (like Tony Dungy):
You have to punt the ball in that situation. As much as you might respect Peyton Manning, you have to play the percentages and punt the ball.
And the football-watching public:
Bellicheat is no genius! Bottom line...he blew the call last night and cost New England the game!

There is absolutely no way to support the call he made. None.

It was the WRONG call last night. PERIOD.
So, yeah, a lot of people thought it was a bad idea, but note the subtle variations in the reasoning. There's "everybody punts in this situation," "going for it was too risky," "he must not respect his defense," and on and on. I'm resisting the urge to identify and pick apart as many as I can,[1] because I want to focus on the one line of reasoning I find most disturbing. From Sports Illustrated's Peter King, the Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz, and the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy:
I hated the call. It smacked of I'm-smarter-than-they-are hubris.

How did it come to pass that Belichick, a brilliant man, …eschew[ed] the obvious punt, arrogantly choosing to go for the first down?

[The] Patriots are saddled with a loss that will haunt them for the rest of the season. And Belichick gets the blame. Too smart for his own good this time. The sin of hubris.
While the "it was wrong for hazy and/or speculative tactical reasons" stuff was largely a product of the Patriots losing (because there's no faulty logic there), I'm not sure the "arrogant bastard!" crowd really cared who won—in fact, they might've been even more upset if the play had worked.

King, Kravitz, and Shaughnessy (who, by the way, are hardly alone here) sort of try to make tactics-based arguments, but you can tell their hearts aren't in it.[2] They're writing out of anger. I don't know why they're angry—maybe because Belichick is (by many accounts) a fairly unlikeable guy, maybe (in Shaughnessy's case) because the Patriots lost—but I suspect at least part of it is that a guy widely considered to be smarter than pretty much everyone, and thus probably smarter than each of them, had just made a decision they didn't understand, and that pretty much all the early support for that decision came from other smart people.

Now, some may say, "in this era of high unemployment, out-of-control spending, and the president being a communist or something, who cares what a bunch of sportswriters said about a play in a football game?" Well to them I say perhaps it's time to work on your microcosm-spotting technique, because, pardon the oxymoron, but this whole thing is a big-ass microcosm. (Also, thanks for reading!)

The same attitude shows up everywhere, including areas where it can actually be dangerous. For example, climate change, and the ongoing debate about whether humans have caused measurable harm to the environment, and the related debate about whether we're capable of reversing or mitigating whatever damage has been (or will be) done. To be clear, I'm a lot more comfortable talking about football than climate change, in large part because I don't know where to go for scientific data that isn't biased in some way or another (is there such a thing?), but I'm a big fan of what Bjørn Lomborg says here:
Common sense was an early loser in the scorching battle over the reality of man-made global warming. For nearly 20 years, one group of activists argued—in the face of ever-mounting evidence—that global warming was a fabrication. Their opponents, meanwhile, exaggerated the phenomenon's likely impact—and, as a consequence, dogmatically fixated on drastic, short-term carbon cuts as the only solution, despite overwhelming evidence that such cuts would be cripplingly expensive and woefully ineffective.

Acknowledging that man-made climate change is real, but arguing that carbon cuts are not the answer, amounts to staking out a middle ground in the global warming debate—which means being attacked from both sides. For so-called "alarmists," pointing out what's wrong with drastic carbon cuts is somehow tantamount to denying the reality of climate change, while so-called "deniers" lambast anyone who accepts the scientific evidence supporting this "mythical" problem.
Maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong, but any reasonable person can recognize this as a reasonable way of looking at things. At the very least, it's worth thinking about, right?

On the other hand, in the words—and I use that term more loosely than ever before in my life [3]—of everyone's favorite former Alaska governor:
Copenhgen=arrogance of man2think we can change nature's ways.MUST b good stewards of God's earth,but arrogant&naive2say man overpwers nature
Translation: "I simply cannot let the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit conclude without tweetin' my objection to what I perceive as the fundamental flaw of the event's underlying ethos. Namely, the notion that we, merely the humble children of our benevolent God, are capable of imposin' our will on forces—both natural and supernatural—beyond our full comprehension. To subscribe to this mentality is as arrogant as it is naïve, which is to say an excessive amount of both. That said, I do believe in treatin' the environment with respect, lest we do irreparable damage to this terrestrial home God has so graciously provided for us, and somehow I fail to realize that by qualifyin' the first thing I said I am, in fact, refudiatin' its logical foundation."

I don't think those sportswriters honestly believe going for the first down was indefensible, and I don't think Sarah Palin honestly believes there's nothing we can do to change the environment for the better. So, what's really going on?

It could be any number of things, I suppose, but, when a new idea challenges your worldview, it's a whole lot easier to attack the person who came up with it than the idea itself, because to attack the idea requires thought. So…that's my guess.

1. Alright, just one (this is why I love footnotes). From Bill Simmons:
Belichick did play the percentages…I am not disputing the numbers or the methods for achieving them.

In the biggest game of the regular season when a football coach tries something that…I cannot remember another team doing on the road in the last three minutes of a close game, that's not "gutsy." It's not a "gamble." It's not "believing we can get that two yards." It's not "revolutionary." It's not "statistically smart." It's reckless
No! Don't do things that give you a better chance of winning football games! That's reckless!
    I like Simmons, and I've obviously been subconsciously influenced by his writing style, and I really don't think he would've been one of the torch-wielding villagers in 17th-century Italy calling for Galileo's head, but that's what this makes me think of.
2. Peter King's half-hearted attempt is by far the silliest:
Let's place the odds of Brady getting two yards at 60, 65 percent. The odds of Manning going 72 yards to score a touchdown in less than two minutes…that's maybe 35 percent.
Ok, I'll play along. King says the Colts have a 35% chance of scoring after a punt, which means the chance of them not scoring is 65%—about the same as the odds he gives the Patriots of converting on fourth down. And, by the way, a failed conversion doesn't guarantee a Colts touchdown, nor does a Colts touchdown preclude the Patriots from re-taking the lead on their next possession, so New England's odds of winning would be somewhat higher than 60, 65%. Later, he adds:
[T]his would never have been a great call. Even it you think you've got a two-out-of-three chance to make two yards deep in your own territory, the cost of missing it is too great.
So going for it gives you a 66.7% chance of winning, and punting gives you a 65% chance of winning. Therefore, going for it is stupid and indefensible. Arrogant bastard!
    Peter King is trying to make an argument that only sounds reasonable if you justify it with made-up numbers, and he can't even do that right. It's mind-boggling. I blame the public schools.
3. Look, I realize Twitter's character limit creates a certain degree of difficulty, and I realize Palin likes to play up her folksiness, and I'm decidedly not a prescriptivist (I know I made some jokes above, but I'm more than willing to defend Palin on her gerunds and on the "refudiate" thing), but this is just awful. Even if I agreed with everything she said, I'm not sure I could ever vote for someone whose transcribed thoughts look like that.

1 comment:

  1. The bar cart is IT! Too perfect! Another amazing score! What we see all the first time we have learned the hard way not to break up are perfect! Looking caveman! It was a great weekend of football!