Sometimes in sports, it is possible to over-think.
We saw that in the Super Bowl when the Seahawks coaches decided to “waste” a down by putting the ball in the air at the goal line. Some waste.
New Yorkers are watching an entire basketball season get wasted as the Knicks stumble around the court, consulting copies of a textbook titled “Triangle Offense.”
The flawed reasoning is clear in Harvey Araton’s fascinating luncheon interview with Phil Jackson in Wednesday’s Times – too old New York hands talking hoops.
What I take away from the candid conversation is that even very smart and successful people like Jackson can over-think. I am reminded of that in the computer age,when people belatedly employ statistical analysis to what athletes and coaches did on the field, on the fly.
The 2014 World Series ended with the tying run on third base for Kansas City. Many hours afterward, the great Nate Silver – who aced the 2012 presidential election –wrote that the runner should have been sent home as the ball was kicked around in left field. Silver came up with statistics that the tying run scores from third with two outs only 25-27 percent of the time.
Silver suggested that the Royals were not likely to get another hit off Madison Bumgarner and postulated that a collision at home plate would have favored the Royals because of rule changes since Buster Posey of the Giants had his leg broken in a collision in 2011. I found that specious over-thinking because Posey remains a tough and resourceful catcher.
Having seen the play as it happened, on television, and in many replays, I go along with the decision by the Royals’ third-base coach – Mike Jirschele, a baseball lifer – as he lined up the wayward ball, the butterfingered Giants fielders, and the hitter, Alex Gordon, as he steamed toward third.
This was a decision on the fly that journalists and numbers crunchers will never have to make.
If the coach had tried to remember the statistical probabilities of tying runs on third base, the process would have interfered with his complicated spot decision.
After a lifetime of covering sports, up close, talking to managers and coaches, I have great respect for what they know and do, in real time. Not that mistakes don’t happen. We saw one in the Super Bowl, when the very smart Pete Carroll and his offensive coordinator called a pass from half a yard outside the end zone.
A day later, I read an “analysis” in the Times that said in football, as in life itself, people have to employ a “mixed strategy” or else they become too predictable. I agree, in theory, but I say that second-and-goal, maybe 18 inches away, is not the time to get cute and put the ball in the air, where a defensive back, having the greatest moment of his career, maybe his life, can go get it.
Somewhere in the Football Handbook of Statistical Probability, there is a rule: Give the Ball to the Big Fella.
That’s not statistics, a day later. That is common sense, for playing the game in the moment.
2/4/2015 06:35:57 am
I wholeheartedly agree. Yes, I know the Patriots were in their goal-line defense, all the big boys on the field, and so you often do not try to run against that defense. But giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch is never a bad idea and I think the odds of him scoring right there on second down were about 80 percent. You are losing the game. You need to get the winning points as soon as possible, preferably on second down. If Lynch gets stopped, there';s a time out and everyone takes a breath and re-assesses the situation,
2/4/2015 10:24:56 am
Paul, great to hear from a respected colleague and friend. You had a very productive time in AZ. The Seahawks were surely capable of a 3-and-5 pass play in case Lynch got stuffed, or something. They ran a great play to start the sequence, throwing to him on the left side. But 18 inches from winning the Super Bowl? That is mixing it up to a fault.
2/4/2015 09:51:57 am
Silver's argument is that sending Gordon home, a play with only a 1-in-3 chance of success (based on statistics), was warranted because Bumgarner was pitching too well and the odds of scoring off of him if Gordon held third would be less than 1-in-3. Maybe, but if Gordon gets thrown out we can imagine this explanation from third base coach to manager:
2/4/2015 10:28:25 am
Roy, thanks. I still remember Tony LaRussa;s comment about the Moneyball movie in 2011: LaRussa said that a lot of good baseball scouts lost jobs because of the new statistic phrase. He was sticking up for BB people who know the game from living it. Running numbers hours after the coach has judged the action in front of him is interesting, but baseball people make the call on the fly. Good to hear from you. GV
2/5/2015 06:55:02 am
George, I couldn't disagree more. First, half a yard doesn't sound right to me. Second of all, the receiver was wide open and the pass was thrown perfectly--------------only the defender made an incredible interception. Third, controlling the clock is an issue when there is less than a minute. The play was a surprise and the Patriots were lucky to stop it. There is a difference in what kind of defenses are employed with several minutes to go on the goal line and when the time is running out. I have little doubt that Belichick had a good plan to stop Lynch on a running play and obviously Pete Carroll thought so too. Given the probability that the Patriots were going to tackle Lynch as soon as the play unfolded, I would not have given the ball to him either. That is not as safe as it sounds, even if Lynch looks unstoppable at times. More games are lost with teams screwing around with running with a lead than are lost by taking a shot at winning. I don't think Carroll was being cute, I think he was making the right call. And in football it is always important, like in politics, to send messages. Carroll wants all of football to know he does not fear throwing the ball with the game on the line and that will be important for the future. Remember that Lynch is not nearly the threat he is if Carroll doesn't take the kind of down field chances he did in the NFC title game against the Packers and in this game. The Seahawks simply ran out of miracles. I think we have all bought into the conservative thinking of play calling since Bill Parcells and his conservative ilk, and that is not always the way to win. Indeed all NFL teams would benefit enormously by throwing the ball down field and trusting their receivers to make crazy and spectacular plays, as everybody did in the 1960s, including John Madden via misters Lamonica and Stabler. I sincerely believe that the Patriots were set to tackle Lynch BEFORE he could take the hand off on that play.
2/5/2015 07:32:43 am
Hansen, thanks, man, I know you know the game much better than I do. Statistically, Seattle has a great rushing offense up close, and the Patriots have a poor defense. But that's just numbers. I agree about surprises. But the key phrase is "in the air." Seattle put the ball up, much more chance of trouble than if they'd run it. They still had a TO and two downs. But you are right about Seattle's mixing it up -- that swing pass left to Lynch to open the drive, perfect. I leave you with what I heard Reggie Jackson say to a sub OF named Bobb y Brown who had dared to steal second with Reggie up and two outs: "You had better be safe." Reggie's Rule. Thanks for your expertise. GV
2/5/2015 11:57:18 am
George, for the most part, I'm not any expert on football compared to you,who has been writing about the sport since I was a teen. However, I don't think you win in football, by playing it safe. Without going into Walt Michael's idiotic prevent defense in that classic Jets meltdown in the Dog pound, I would suggest that you are better off NOT playing safe in the Super Bowl. These were the kind of games that even the conservative Bill Parcells went for it on fourth down and opened second halves with on -side kicks. The Seahawks won last year by taking risks with Percy Harvin. They lost this year barely without Harvin. Baseball is too distinct from baseball for your comparison to work. Your friend Tony La Russa would have answered your riddle above by walking Jackson. The defense can't order Marshall Lynch off the field. But it can contain him in obvious situations. Anything other than a quick pass and you would have faced either a run blitz at Lynch or a pass blitz with somebody tackling Lynch anyway. And remember since Joe Montana "ball control" has been executed as much through the air as on the ground.
2/6/2015 12:10:02 am
See, you do know the sport better than I do.
2/8/2015 07:29:17 pm
I would like to thank you for your nicely written post
3/24/2015 06:00:10 pm
Thank you for another wonferdul article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such an ideal way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.
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From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.