Monday, November 15, 2010

Three-Down Football

Conservatism is more than just a political philosophy. It's a way of life, leaving its mark on practically every facet of society. And as a red-blooded American Southerner, there is exactly one facet of society I care about from September through January: Football.[1]

It's a perfect match, really, conservatism and football, because conservatives can't stand change. "We've been doing things a certain way for as long as we can remember," they say. "We're not just going to start doing something different on a whim." Not that I'm opposed to that mindset—if something works, and there isn't overwhelming evidence that something else would work better, it does seem a bit irresponsible to shake things up—but, every so often, a new idea turns out to be rather compelling. Meanwhile, the status quo—the best system given what we knew and believed at some non-specific time in the past—has taken on a life of its own, becoming this thing that must be protected because it's the status quo, as if that alone is proof of its superiority.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, football, where the status quo is fanatically adhered-to all the hell over the place.

For those unfamiliar with the game, the team with the ball is given three plays, or "downs," to advance ten yards. This process repeats as many times as necessary until (1) the ball is advanced into the end zone for a touchdown, (2) the ball is stolen by the opposing team, (3) time expires, or (4) a play on the third and final down falls short of the ten-yard threshold. In the latter case, the team must either punt to the opposing team or attempt a field goal.

Or so it was commonly believed, until, in 2005, a professor at UC-Berkeley made a game-changing [2] discovery: In addition to the three widely-known downs, there was another, "fourth," down. It turns out that, by taking advantage of the new down, a team can make more attempts to advance the ball downfield than ever before—up to 33% more, by some estimates.

The implications are staggering. Could it really be true that Lombardi, Landry, Halas, and all the other legendary coaches were doing it wrong? It's a question that borders on heresy. The conventional wisdom, after all, is the sum total of more than a century of analysis, observation, and experimentation, dating back at least to 1906, when a St. Louis University student named Bradbury Robinson had the audacity to throw the ball forward. And yet, evidence continues to mount that—in terms of the crucial decision a coach must always make after a failed third down play—most have been, and continue to be, doing it wrong.

The football world, shockingly enough, doesn't want to hear it, because what could a bunch of number-crunching eggheads possibly know about football? "We'll just stick with punts and field goals," they say. "Fourth down attempts are risky." Well, of course they are. Risk/reward scenarios are the very essence of sports!

It's as if status quo-defenders are unaware that the more familiar options have risks of their own. A punt involves voluntarily giving up control of the ball without scoring points—not a sacrifice to be taken lightly, as the primary method of determining success or failure on a game-by-game basis is by comparison of cumulative point totals.[3] A field goal, at least, is worth a few points, though on average less than half that of a touchdown. And most fans need not be reminded that, from time to time, field goal attempts go awry.[4]

Obviously, it would be crazy to embrace fourth down with reckless abandon (except that maybe it isn't). The ideal approach is to seek an appropriate balance between caution and curiosity, but only a handful of coaches have been even that adventurous. Instead, most have planted themselves in a familiar, comfortable spot near the conservative extreme. Like an alien visitor to a three-downs-and-kick planet, fourth down is seen as strange and unwanted and probably dangerous. It's a threat to the status quo, and the best way to preserve the status quo is to refuse to question it.

Otherwise, you might find out the status quo isn't worth preserving, and that's a risk few are willing to take.

Coming up: A look at the events of one year ago today,[5] when an unconventional thinker did something unconventional, and received a lot of very conventional criticism. Basically, this article, but with more specifics and without all the condescending tongue-in-cheekiness. Well, not as much of it, anyway.

1. Ok, there's also politics, pretentious films, and, you know, friends and family and stuff. But mostly football.
2. Pun very much intended.
3. As noted above, most-points-scored is the preferred method of determining winners of individual games. It logically follows, then, that most-games-in-which-more-points-were-scored should be the preferred method of ranking multiple teams over the course of multiple games.
    This is the case in the NFL, but in college football that method is used in combination with countless others. To name a few: most-points-scored-against-hapless-opponents-who-never-had-a-chance, fans'-willingness-to-travel-and-spend-money-on-tickets-and-hotel-rooms, votes-held-by-a-team's-own-coach (up to a maximum of one, which doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot more than zero), and, of course, intangibles (having a contract with NBC, being last year's champion, not being from Idaho, having once employed Paul "Bear" Bryant, etc.). It's a staggeringly complex system, and yet, somehow, it seems to work. Sorry, I mistyped. It doesn't work at all.
4. Another good choice for that link: Wide Right, the band. Any guesses where they're from? Highlight the bracketed text (or just go to their site) for the answer: [Buffalo, New York—former home of NFL kicker Scott Norwood!]
5. "One year ago today?," you're probably thinking. "Why not post that article today, and this one a few days earlier?" Aren't you clever. Where were you this time last week, when I was blissfully unaware of the impending anniversary of the Patriots-Colts debacle?

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