Thursday, September 30, 2010

An NFL Rant

I'll be working hard to get the college and NFL picks out in a more timely fashion this week. 7-2 in the NFL so far this year and 7-3 in college (damn Sooners), so hopefully we can keep it going. Vegas took their pound of flesh on the tables, so I'm licking my wounds. Actually I'm suturing my wounds. Here is this week's rant:

I really don't understand how NFL coaches can't grasp late-game situations and think a few moves ahead. In the Monday night game Chicago had the ball on the Green Bay nine yard line, first down with 1:44 left in a 17-17 game. Green Bay had one time out left. Chicago ran for six yards, then two yards and GB then used its last timeout with 0:53 left. Chicago ran another play, the clock ran down to 0:08 seconds and the Bears kicked a 19-yard field goal to win the game 20-17. I'm screaming at the television the whole time.

This was beyond dumb clock management by Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy. The odds of the Bears turning the ball over or missing the short field goal were roughly 5%. McCarthy would have been much better off letting the Bears score and hoping his offense, one of the best in the league, could tie the game and force overtime. Yes, the odds of winning would still be low, but having 1:45 and one timeout with that offense at least gives him a chance to tie and eventually win the game.

The larger point is that NFL coaches should be put through thousands of simulations during the off-season so that they have encountered all the end-of-game simulations they might come up against and it's not being done. During the course of the football season I might see pieces of ten games during a weekend and highlights of twenty more. That's 500-600 pro and college games of which 10-20% are going to have interesting end-of-game scenarios. I'll bet NFL coaches see maybe two games a week. They are focused solely on their team and breaking down film of the next week's opponent. Sure that is what they are paid to do. But, as a result, they don't know or haven't thought enough about probabilities and end-of-game strategy. They haven't encountered all the different scenarios they might face, and thus don't make good decisions under real-time pressure.

New England coach Bill Belichick got killed last year for going for it late in a game in a 4th-and-2 scenario deep in his own territory against the Colts. It failed, but was absolutely the right move. Of course, the media didn't understand the percentages and those inside the game, shackled in their rigid style of no-risk thinking and backward-looking, results-based analysis, only saw the failure of the effort and thus saw it as the wrong move. Study after study has shown that NFL coaches and teams are way too risk-averse when encountered with various fourth down situations where they have the choice of trying to retain possession and score or turning the ball back over to the other team, but few coaches dare risk breaking the mold. Innovation and forward thinking takes place at the high school level and the college level, but rarely in the NFL.

It's ridiculous that I'm screaming at the television telling an NFL coach what to do more than once a weekend. There is inadequate teaching and preparation on the game-strategy side of the sport that can and should be easily remedied. Teams are spending millions of dollars trying to get the smallest advantage, yet they are overlooking an easy one that is virtually cost-free. I am shocked no team has really exploited this to its full advantage.


Keith Foulke said...

This rant is a granny to left-center but the problem actually may be worse than you describe. Yes, the professional coaching indsutry as a whole butchers these late game situations but it isn't just clock management where problems crop up. Fourth down conversions are another big problem for this group and this might surprise but the numbers on onside kicks are so compelling that it is astonishing we don't see more action in that area. Particularly after personal fouls move you up fifteen yards. Coaches that don't roll the ball in that situation probably shouldn't be allowed close to the headset.

I think the problem you reference really begs the following question ...... are professional HFC's smart men? I'm serious. They may be smart "football" guys. But the failure to understand and apply basic notions of probability is pretty damning. And we are not talking about tricky math here. This is pretty basic stuff.

Jhcurry said...

The media will fry anyone that tries and fails the unorthodox strategy. The mantra of football is to fight it out and to stand firm. Working probabilities is beyond the capacity of not only the coaches and the media but also the vast majority of the fan base. So, if you're doing the right thing and no one else believes it and it fails, was it the right thing to do afterall? Absolutely, but it won't happen because ultimately it's better short term to fight the fight and lose than to spout probablilities to an ignorant audience.

"The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but, the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him." Leo Tolstoy, 1897

Irishmike said...

It has been my belief for years that coaches in all sports make most of their decisions based on lessening media scrutiny vs. actually winning the game. And since most of the media eschews any advanced statistical analysis and believes in the playing things by the 50 year old "book" a coach can avoid scrutiny by being conservative and sticking to traditional strategies that have long been disproved by stats. In baseball - sac bunts, silly use of "closers" etc. In football - onside kicks per the below, punting on 4th and short inside midfield, allowing a team to score to save time etc.

It's baffling. You would think that one or two of these billionaire owners, who presumably used analytics in the business that allowed them to amass their fortune, would hire a coach who understands these things and allow (actually force) him to coach that way.

faustus le grand said...

leo tolstoy can eat my samovar, but the man does have a point: did anyone come away from hard knocks thinking ryan, tennenbaum, woody johnson or anyone there had a brain? so part of it is stupdity, but i agree with other posters that another very big part of it is one gets fired, at least not directly, for going with the conventinoal wisdom no matter how wrong it is. the media outrage over belichiks choice to not punt was painful in so many ways--a) they were wrong b) they would have feted him like a grand duchess had it worked.