Welcome to this edition of the Lowdown. This is my little corner of the fantasy football universe — feel free to pull up a chair and stay a while!
Choices Have Consequences
There’s a bunch of “unwritten rules” in every sport– truisms uncovered through years of experience and passed down through the generations. An example of a truism in the NFL might be that the team that wins the turnover battle tends to win the game, which holds up 75% percent of the time.
Analytics are very useful in speeding up the discovery of truisms, and disproving widely-held truisms; after all, analytics has often been described by NERDS (like me!) as the uncovering of hidden truths. So while analytics confirms the validity of truisms like the need to win the turnover battle, it also disproves alleged truisms like “the team with the fewest penalties will win the game”. A problem with analytics, however, is that while it uncovers hidden truths, it often cannot tell us why things occured; it cannot guarantee how irrational humans will react to specific events with any degree of certainty.
I mention the above because there’s been a rash of idiotic decisions being made by NFL head coaches this season, and nearly all of it is being excused by TV announcers as “I guess that decision is being driven by analytics”. Chargers HC Brandon Staley has been lauded this season as a young Turk who understands analytics and isn’t afraid to buck NFL traditions by going for it on fourth down in questionable situations; and since he’s been largely successful, every NFL HC now feels the need to do the same. On the NERDS gameday Twitter feed you’ll often find me complaining about this, and I wrote about it here last week. Of course, my initial scorn was for the journalists and commentators praising Staley’s decisions. This week, almost as if on cue, I need to highlight the fact that other coaches are now emboldened by Staley. I’ll use one of my “favorite” coaches as an example: Mike McCarthy.
In the 1Q against the Patriots last week, from his own 34, McCarthy went for it on 4th-and-1 (and failed). Later, with the game on the line and 3:20 remaining, he decided to eschew on converting 4th-and-1, opting to go for the 51 yarder (and failed again). Inconsistent, illogical and idiotic. Analytically, McCarthy’s idiotic play-calling will be recorded as being successful, since the Cowboys went on to win the game in OT; however, it was clear to anyone watching the game that McCarthy was wrong both times (he was just bailed out by dumb luck). Going for it on 4th-and-1 has become its own science– historical results with every possible game scenario (and outcomes) are available. And while it’s true that coaches should be a bit more aggressive on 4th-and-1, what most are failing to recognize is the effect success/failure of such decisions have on the psyche of both teams. A struggling team (like the Patriots) draws strength from stonewalling the Cowboys, while a besieged RB like Ezekiel Elliott failing to convert starts wondering if the critics are right.
There’s a lot to glean from a good analytical analysis– heck, it’s what puts food on my family’s table; but it’s important to take a holistic view and understand that analytics is just a piece of the puzzle, not the whole damn puzzle.
NEXT: the Interesting Players of the Week