The Hidden Challenge in NFL Draft Evaluation

(Last updated, 6-26-15)

Drafting is both art and science. The goal is to select players most likely to help your team, and help your team as much as possible.

The problem with this seemingly simple “science” is two fold.

The first problem is the difference between real and perceived college performance. In other words, how a player seems to “perform” in college is given too much weight in terms of evaluating how well that player actually “performed.” We’ll come back to this idea.

The second is that there is insufficient weight given to college performance (and again, real performance in particular – not perceived college performance), relative to other factors which are sometimes given too much weight.

That is, factors which can be separately and precisely measured off the field, but that may already be factoring into actual on field performance, can easily be given too much separate weight or importance in lieu of or in addition to actual performance. And many of the most common of these, consist of NFL combine “measurables”

In considering these “measurables,” it’s human nature to under estimate or insufficiently consider how much some are already integrated into a player’s on field performance. This sometimes leads to over evaluation of a player’s real football abilities based upon both on field performance as well as measurables when the latter – measurables – may already be playing a large role in that on field performance in the first place.

In other words, the player performed well on the field, or at least as well as they appeared to have, in large part because of those measurables, not separately from them.

Thus giving too much weight (or sometimes almost any weight at all) to measurables can sometimes result in a form of “double counting” – giving higher on field grades due to these same measurables, which are then “added’ as separate “plus” factors to the players grade. Whereas on the other hand, better inherent football player skills, in the absence of such strong measurables, are only being single counted.

An example should make this crystal clear. Then we’ll look briefly at the first factor – actual evaluation versus perceived evaluation. (Which, as is the case with the over “measurables” problem is one that also hinders proper NFL player evaluation, and plays an enormous role in who to sign, re sign, or not sign. And, for how much to sign them for.)

A Cornerback Comparison

Consider two college cornerbacks.  Both tackle fairly well, with,at least “reasonable” execution. (Poor tackling technique and execution is the single most important and improvable aspect to improved football play and an improved winning percentage, but we’ll get to that in another post.)

They play in similar conferences, against roughly similar opposition – seemingly same caliber quarterbacks, receivers, and so forth.

Player A seems to effect a better overall coverage style. He is tighter off the snap, jams with far more natural leverage, is lightning quick in recovery even when juked by a head fake (which happens infrequently), is fluid – and while he can be outrun by some speedy receivers on fly routes, he makes up for this by excellent “natural” anticipation and a super quick start and acceleration.

A’s standing vertical leap isn’t so great. But watching him carefully suggests he does something critical to good pass defense, and very difficult to do for even better NFL caliber cornerbacks: He is extremely agile, and able to always get near maximum vertical air penetration from almost any angle, even while running and twisting to find the ball.

One can assume A has “good game” hands. Far too much is sometimes read into pass interception statistics, since often the sample size is far too low to make any real strong inferences. But our guy hasn’t dropped too many passes that have hit his hands, so his hands during games appear “soft.” (This is a key skill for DBs, to the extent it can be properly evaluated, It is also one of the most difficult, yet important, things to both teach, and require, in NFL caliber defensive backs if you want your team to dominate an opponent, or at least be Super Bowl bound. Even more so for receivers.)

Let’s switch to cornerback B:

His performance overall seems about the same. Maybe just a tad lower, but marginally, if even that. He seems to have a higher vertical leap, and also reasonably soft hands. Perhaps slower off the line, he seems faster overall, and is 3 inches taller than cornerback A.

Now let’s look at his measurables. Combine style. He’s 6′ 2″. His vertical is also 5″ higher than cornerback A.  Add in his 3 extra inches of height, and it gives him a total of 8″ over A. If his “wingspan,” or length from fingertip to fingertip with arms outstretched at 180 degrees and parallel to the ground is larger, this would give him additional reaching length. (Wingspans aren’t always correlated with height. I know this because I’m on the shorter side, but have an extremely wide reach, and very large hands.)

Now to the real beauty test for many players, including cornerbacks. The 40 yard dash. At 4.35 he’s very fast.

But is the 40 yard dash really that important? In terms of affecting draft positioning, it is, but it may not always be as good of an indicator as is presumed. (Jerry Rice, who some say is the greatest receiver to ever play the game, was repeatedly slow in his 40 times. Very slow.)

Sure, the Bengals’ Vontaze Burfict had other issues. But a big part of the reason he plummeted in the 2012 NFL draft was a poor 40 yard dash time. I wondered which team would take a shot at the possible steal of the draft.

The Bengals picked up Burfict – one of the stronger, if not one of the best, linebackers in the NFL – as a rookie free agent.  That is, he went undrafted. This was a huge mistake by other teams. And not just a “mistake in hindsight”:

The risk on Burfict was that he doesn’t work out – big deal, that happens with a lot of draft picks, particularly later ones. But Burfict had already been recognized as having 1st round talent. Turned out, he did, and has lived up to that in the NFL. (Unfortunately late last season he experienced season ending injury issues.)

Our cornerback A, in comparison to B’s fairly fast time, clocks in at a more leisurely 4:45 in the 40 yard dash. (This would put him around the middle to lower middle among cornerbacks in the 2014 draft, for example.)

It turns out cornerback B also did several more “reps” than A in the bench press – a flat bench press of 225 lbs, as many times as possible.

The rep bench press may not be as key for cornerbacks, but it may add to perception – well founded or not, that cornerback B is “disciplined” because he has hit the weight room. (Which on the flip side would tend to mask a lower natural strength than, say cornerback A, or for other positions, player A, who didn’t for any number of reasons, several of which don’t detract from his potential as a pro.) Or that he is “stronger,” which again may be incorrect. It’s a specific type of muscular strength, and also tied to direct practice of that particular lifting action and similar ones.

So the problem now comes with interpretation. We’ll look at this, and then integrate the first dilemma – real as opposed to perceived college play performance – with these same two players. In doing so, both key impediments to good draft evaluation should become more apparent.

Both cornerbacks are “good.” But cornerback B is a good bit taller. He extends that height possibility even more on jumps, with a more powerful vertical leap. Even more important perhaps, the vertical “tells us” that Cornerback B is more “explosive.” (The problem is it doesn’t necessarily tell us this. It tells us he may be.)  This explosion is key off the line, as well as possibly for fast shifting movement.

Both A and B played against similar opposition (which is often not the case, and is often far too underestimated), so we’re even somewhat comparing “apples to apples” (or players to players) here. Even better! (Or are we, as we’ll see in a moment,)

A is good, but B is “money.” He is taller, more explosive, “stronger,” and, drum roll, a good bit faster right in that “money” spot between being able to “okay” cover, and easily hang with the faster receivers in the NFL.

The following is not precise, but a complete hypothetical merely for the purpose of illustrating the two key points much more clearly. (And in more interesting fashion.)

Suppose looking just at film, both CBs looked like mid to late first rounders. But check out B! Those measurables put him significantly ahead of A, particularly with that fast speed, or 40 yard dash time. Measurables on the other hand, because of some okay, but not great, numbers, put A a little further behind than he’d otherwise be.

Draft day rolls around, and Team B trades away some draft picks to try and grab player B. All of this reflects a huge loss in value, since team B is not “lessening” their chances of getting a star, solid player, or even contributor with those other sacrificed picks; they are effectively making the chances zero with those picks they have now given up.

And so with the move, team B moves up from mid late in the first round, to early first round. And they “scoop” up player B.

Team A watches the board closely, trying to gauge both various team interest as well as player availability, while putting some feelers out yet playing it fairly close to the vest.

Team A targets two inside lineman and a linebacker who may fall because of position, as well as a smooth and rugged but not blazingly fast wide receiver, all of whom they think represent value for their late first round pick, and they think one to even both of the interior lineman, possibly even the wideout, may still be available early in the second round when they have another pick.

So team A hangs tight, and maybe the best player of the other four they were most aggressively targeting early, the linebacker (a position that used to get too little attention in the NFL draft relative to its team value, but that has changed in recent years), falls to them at 25. Bingo.

The other three of the four, along with our own cornerback A, are still on the board. And team A still has the 4th pick of the second round – 36 overall – due to a trade they made with a bad team (hence why the pick is the 4th of the round overall), who gave up way to much to target a player “they had to have,” the year before.

They love cornerback A, and think he’s a little bit underrated for our two reasons we’ll bring completely to light shortly, and may even have been better than the linebacker, who was a strong pick at 25.

But the wideout and the still available center (and maybe the guard), are both 1st round talents, and it’s not worth losing a draft pick just to “ensure” getting their CB by moving up a few spots. (That’s another mistake teams often repeatedly make: “Having” to get this or that player and paying an undue premium just to make sure they get him when they may anyway – thereby lessening the true value of the trade, since sometimes the trade did not “get them” that player in the draft, it merely upped their chances, a lesser value.)

They hang again, and watch with delight, seeing if someone will overpay for their 36th pick, since they know they’ll still get one of their 4 remaining guys, and if the best is still available, they can move back up for less. No one meets their modest asking price – albeit a little higher than normal, because they have their eye on CB “A”; and so if they are going to give up pick 36, they will ask for a little more than they normally would.

And voila, after a run at picks 33 and 35, the wideout and our center are gone, but the guard and our target CB are still available when our Good Old Commissioner (right now, still Goodell), calls up pick number 36. Bingo again. Cornerback A is off the board.

Fast forward 10 years. Who had the better career?

You can’t tell. And that’s the first problem with hard core draft moves that forget to sufficiently factor in the inherent variance factor.  On the facts we gave you, however, and completely forgetting the fact that one was a high first round draft pick which the team gave up some other picks to move up and take, and the other an early second rounder, which player is actually the better player?

On these facts it’s harder to tell. If all the facts were the same, but both players were a little worse – say late 2 to 4 round material without their measurables – the differential might be slightly more pronounced. The reason for this is that it’s harder and harder to play at the highest levels of the NFL relative to college, and making the transition from the college game to the higher levels of NFL play is a bigger jump. The difference is probably small, but in this case college performance not be quite as directly correlated, and some weaknesses – which measurables may or may not expose – might become more relevant.

However, this gets fairly speculative, and complex. The bottom line is that in general, on the facts we gave you, the two CBs are probably close to equal, and player A might be the better cornerback. It’s hard to say without more evaluation.

Then why did team B trade up? Why was the consensus consistent with (if perhaps not quite as enthusiastic as) team Bs? Was the consensus wrong??

For the most part, it probably was.  And this brings us to the first part of the two challenges. The integration of measurables into on field performance.

Simply put, when players A and B are evaluated based upon play, the role that their measurables plays in terms of effecting performance is often not isolated out, and removed; or not sufficiently done so.

Suppose player B looks better on the field. The reason he looks better might simply be because he is faster. So having a faster combine time might not be an additional benefit, or at least nearly as much of one as it is being perceived to be.  Alternatively, the reason player B looks as good as player A is because he is faster.

Without that speed, he may not look nearly as good on the field. And this may make up for a lack of inherent extra skill, that player A, on the other hand, has.

It’s legitimate. B is what he is. But his speed may be making up part of “what” he is as a player on the field. So getting ga ga over his 40 yard times, and disappointed over player A’s 40 yards times, while understandable, might be double counting a measurable which is already being inherently integrated into each player’s actual performance.

Of course it’s not this simple, as there are certain attributes that may translate better to NFL play, which is more difficult than college level play, and a little bit different.  There is also the even more qualitative, and tricky question of “potential.” Was B not superior to A on the field because of teachable or practice-able skills or inherent movement and kinesthetic patterns, flexibilities and strengths that A has already learned?

So the measurables can add value. But it is so easy and often natural to greatly overestimate their value, and confuse speculative judgment of “potential” with the actual fact or high probability of it, that a lot of teams would almost be better served to all but ignore them altogether. At least until a more robust way of integrating them into actual on field performance is practiced.

But again, on these facts, player B could still be a little better. He may have had less relevant football experience, he may lack some of those skills that he has the potential to learn – hard as this is to figure out accurately – etc.  There’s also the second key factor we will get to in a moment, which could also cut either way. We don’t know. But on these facts as given, the perception of player B as a better cornerback than A, may be pushing it.

Fast forward to 10 years later.  Cornerback A had a fantastic career, Cornerback B was a solid player – not a draft “bust” who sometimes started, then faded to a strong nickel position.

How was A the solidly stronger player, when the consensus had B as the top corner or second corner of the draft? Pure variance? That same variance that teams inevitably underestimate when they target players and and make many draft related trades?

Yes. And of course, as we already looked at, the likely role of the measurables – though that doesn’t necessarily explain why A is better, and again, it is possible that some of the B’s “raw” talent and size and speed, if they are otherwise close could translate better to the NFL.

Looking more Deeply at Both Player’s Real versus Perceived On Field Performance

But there’s also something more, which can be further integrated before the draft, and in this case, it may explain why A was the better cornerback in terms of his ability and likely NFL career, coming out of the draft.

Unlike measurables, which of course need to be looked at more closely yet given less overall weight or value in the total “grading” process, this factor needs to be looked at a lot more closely, and along with overall on field performance, given a lot more value. In other words, decrease the weight put on measurables, and increase the weight put on this next factor, and your team will make better draft decisions overall just on this alone.

The two players played in similar conferences and against somewhat similar teams. But when in the field, were their experiences similar enough, or is their something to distinguish them further?

Both seem to have good hands. (A good thing for all football players, by the way, and under practiced and under insisted upon.) Let’s look closely at an often wildly misleading and therefore very tricky statistic. Interceptions:

Did B have 4 balls bounce off his chest, but catch 18 others in three years? Okay, bad hands, but how did he manage to get into position so many times! It’s still a small number – some of the picks could have been part of the whole “that’s the way the ball bounces” (or in this instance, “flies”) in football; but the number is getting large enough to start to give some solid value to it.

Did B take a lot of “chances” and have a lower rating than he would because he is burned a lot?

Strangely, if it’s only a little bit (in other words, most of his chances were well decided, with some protection against the catch in case he missed the pick) that might speak to some upside if B is willing to undergo what it takes to learn to catch a football. (Note to NFL teams. Catching a football, whether you are going to then be tackled or not, is not a difficult act. Teams don’t know how to effectively practice it to make it like second nature.)  Then very slightly cutting back on, or slightly tweaking and working with his route jumping may even further lessen the times he is flat out burned, while still leaving him with a lot of picks due to immeasurable on field instinctive and movement skills, and now better hands.

But let’s look at our player B. Our player B had 14 picks, and like A decent seeming hands. Player A had 9 picks. This high pick number is part of the assessment on B’s overall potential. But pull out the tape, and examine carefully. 5 of B’s 14 were against backups after injury, who were themselves having bad games, and were easy picks that happened to come his way.  4 more were at the ends of games on 3rd and 4th downs by the losing team where the QB simply had to “take a shot.”

On the other hand, only 1 of such picks fell into player A’s hands, while 7 were actually tough catches, and the 8th was an easier catch after a sick last second cut inside on a soft slant.

Player A also never faced a backup QB. And while the offenses “seemed the same,” almost every game he played happened to be against an opposing starting offensive line, without injury; he played several games against the top passing offenses with his team’s two best pass rushers sidelined, and, evaluating between the two college careers, he faced slightly better offensive lines, along with better quarterbacks, than B faced.

Overall the receivers A matched up with, often in single coverage and rarely with help, were probably equal in ability or maybe better than those B covered. (This is also hard to evaluate, because of the many factors that go into being a “successful” wide receiver that have to do with the rest of that wide receiver’s team and offense in addition to the player’s own ability and performance.)

It turns out A also played with a strained hamstring for 6 games his senior year, that was heavily under reported. It pained him to run, but he didn’t flinch, and sat in hot tubs and stretched lightly all week long to try and get it ready and heal more quickly.

Remarkably (and a bit recklessly, since a little time off for at least deeper initial rest probably would have bee more productively) his extra effort off the field allowed him to recover anyway. A didn’t lift because he didn’t want to bulk up, and thought he’d see how to best increase lower arm and effective “reach” and quick movement strength when he got to the NFL and saw what he was up against.

In this case the bench rep press was no indication of off field “commitment” at all, and A was an instinctively smart player who knew how to grow his skills, worked as hard as player B off the field, and was committed to the game.

Looking more deeply at the film, we see that the percentage of drops against player B – random drops, bad drops, drops that that should not have been dropped, were much higher in his senior  or last, year – the most draft defining season for a college player. Had most of those not throws not been dropped, B’s overall ability may have been considered lower.

On the flip side, while A did a good job sometimes blanking them, he was often up against the other team’s best receiver, and a star for that team, and there were also several good catches against him in really tight coverage, where most receivers would have dropped the ball. These also artificially deflated A’s performance perception, whereas a bunch of drops against B, may have simultaneously inflated his.

The foregoing “deeper look” into both players on field performances is an oversimplification of course and slightly exaggerated, and may be too obvious example; but it is a good example of the more complex, deeper process that must be analytically evaluated and compared, and, most difficult of all, adequately adjusted for.

This is hard to do, since, for example, in player evaluation we’re apt to go “sure he had a great QB throwing him the ball, but look at how good he is!” simply because we see him catching the ball a lot, including some good catches (just as other receivers with lesser opportunities may also make, just with less opportunity to do so) – when other receivers that are not considered as good, might in fact be just as good.

Thus, in addition to measurables – the first second factor which needs to be dialed back – the second factor, is one that needs to be dialed up, and it is that on field performance has to include robust evaluation of the specific players and under what conditions our guy went up against, and even who his opponents in turn went up against, and how they fared, in order to get a better assessment of their real skills so that we can in turn get an even better assessment of our guy’s skills.

Summary

The bottom line for these two key underestimated and insufficiently integrated factors is, of course two fold.

First, measurables, carefully considered, can offer value to the draft evaluation process. But very often those measurables are to some degree – and sometimes to a very large degree – already factored into the players on field performance.

And but for those measurables – which are then being used to “boost up” a player’s draft status on top of his on-field performance – said on-field performance, in turn, would actually have been much weaker to begin with. And the player would have thus been evaluated even lower based upon on field performance, excluding strong “extra value” measurables, to begin with, if there was a way to do that.

But there isn’t. We don’t go “great play, but he’s not that good, look at how fast he is.” But we are apt, after a combine 40 yard dash test, to later go “wow, look at how fast he is, he’s better than we thought!” But he may not be.

The second factor is the importance of looking at football first and always as a team game, even for somewhat “island” positions such as cornerback (and even more so for many others). And in doing so, carefully evaluating the quality and performance of the actual and specific opposition faced, right down to the specific players involved and what factors might have enhanced or lessened their overall ability or projected ability at such times as our guy faced them.

Even when this is done, it is human nature to discount this far more than is warranted, based upon what we “see.” It is what we don’t directly see, that is often the more important. Better drafting decisions, requires it.

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Pete Carroll’s Decision is Being Roundly Castigated On the Unusual Results, Not the Call Itself and Likely Outcomes

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s decision to go with an inside slant pass call on second down from the one yard line, one timeout left, and trailing 28-24 with 26 seconds remaining on the clock after the snap in Super Bowl XLIX, is being called one of the worst decisions ever. (The tweets by notable players compiled by ESPN get better and better, all with the same general conclusion. And a slew of articles in major sports publications immediately emerged, scathingly castigating the play, and calling Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s explanations “cockamamie,” and worse.)

But because of the wildly poor outcome, and the “super” football changing history circumstances, a powerful hindsight bias is greatly affecting judgment of the decision after the play. And the irony here is that it was Bill Belichick – perhaps the best coach of the modern era – who made the really poor decision. (But more on that later.)

It’s possible that an inside slant wasn’t the best call by Seattle. And on this particular play, in hindsight, it worked out poorly. Very poorly: Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler made a great read and jump on the ball, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a micro second late and high, and Wide Receiver Ricardo Lockette stayed soft going for the ball:

But in football, there is huge variation on outcomes for any one play. As a result, the outcome on one play often can’t accurately indicate whether it was a good call or not, even though it can greatly affect judgment of the play after the fact.  Yet it’s hard to remove that outcome from biasing that analysis; particularly so when that outcome is a fluke interception from the one yard line that changes the outcome of the Super Bowl, as well as NFL, Patriots, and Seattle Seahawks’ history.

2 to 3 out of 5 times that particular play call in that situation (or any similar situation) likely would have worked. The other 2 to 3 times the pass goes incomplete and the Seahawks burn 3-4 seconds off the clock. Then, with about 22 seconds left in the game and their one remaining timeout, Seattle can choose to comfortably try two runs, or still mix up the play calling with a roll option, etc. And in such a case the Patriots would know Seattle doesn’t “have to” call this or that specific type of play (such as a pass) because of time constraints and would still be guessing before the ball is snapped – at least somewhat.

In this instance is the decision just worked out very poorly – and the Patriots guessed right before the snap. But near 49 times out of 50 (maybe very slightly less if the Patriots had a hunch from studying film – but they still don’t know that is going to be the play call), the play goes incomplete or it’s a TD, while maybe once in a while the ball is caught just outside the goal line and the receiver is driven backward.

And it’s very rarely a pick; particularly with quarterback Russell Wilson throwing. He’s had 26 picks over 3 regular seasons and 1252 pass attempts. And a few of those picks were in longer third down yardage attempts (where a long interception is often the same as an incomplete and a punt, so you might as well throw if nothing is open), or long odds comeback attempts, where the odds of throwing a pick also go up.

While Wilson didn’t play that well in the NFC Conference Championship game, throwing 4 interceptions – 2 off of tips that were’t really his fault – his performance over his seven other playoff games (all also wins) have if anything, been even better.

Thus the decision to pass from the one yard line is certainly not the “awful” decision it’s being made out to be. Particularly with the additional benefit to Seattle of a clock stoppage if the pass goes incomplete given that they have two more plays – and even a third play if a penalty is called – thus affording them the flexibility to elect a running play (with Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch even!), on any or all of them without time running out before they can get the play off.

Also easily overlooked is the fact that while bad things can happen on a quick slant, the odds are very low. But the only bad thing that really mattered here was ultimately not scoring a touchdown, versus scoring a touchdown. Getting stopped on three successive plays from near the goal line, although not quite as dramatic, is equally as bad as that pick.

And the odds of getting stopped on three successive plays – while lower than scoring (and, because of Belichick’s bad decision moments earlier, thus almost assuredly winning the game as a result) – are still much, much higher than a rare fluke pick on that pass call.

What happened was the sheer unpredictable variance of football, as well a great – and somewhat fortuitous – defensive play by the Patriots who possibly had prepared very well for the circumstances. They had reportedly practiced the play during the week. And according to Butler, who made the great read and jump on the ball and got the interception, he even got burned on that very same play in practice, and that is partly why he remembered it.

Additionally, and perhaps foolishly, Seattle lined up three wide receivers at the line instead of two. Also according to Butler, this tipped him off that the play stood a good chance of being a pass – possibly even an inside route – and he jumped it perfectly on a well timed guess. (And maybe the Patriots had picked up that tendency to not camouflage certain types of plays that well, but they can’t know that that is the exact play that Seattle is going to run, that Seattle would possibly telegraph it here if they did  run, or even that there was a good chance that it would work out the way that it did, regardless.)

While a lot of people may not have liked the slant even before the play – yet plenty would have had it worked, but within a second of seeing that slant, we all saw a wild pick that totally flipped both the game and modern Super Bowl history around – that doesn’t make it a bad decision; and certainly not a horrible one. But the very unusual outcome is being commingled with the actual decision at the time the play was called, when, although easy to confuse, they are two different things.

Here, the fact that it was the Super Bowl, the one yard line, a super Super Bowl match-up with great story lines, and led to such a wild fluke pick, at the very moment after the Patriots last drive to take the lead when it looked like Seattle – and on a fantastic on his back thirty three yard catch by Jermaine Kearse down to the five yard line at the 1:14 mark moments earlier – had driven down to steal it the game back from them, to instead effectively end one of the most memorable Super Bowls in modern history, and do so on second down no less on a pick at the one yard line by one of the best decision making and “calm under game on the line pressure” quarterbacks in the game, is amplifying this tendency further.

Giving the ball to Lynch, strong of a runner as he has been in the postseason for Seattle, does not mean he gets a TD or even that the odds of a TD on a Lynch run are higher than they were (before the fact), on a slant pass.

And even if the odds were a little higher on the run but somewhat close, it supports the slant because of the clock stop advantage on an incomplete pass. Otherwise Seattle would likely have to throw at least once more anyway barring a running score on the very next play, which makes trying a pass first – rather than trying it on third down or fourth down (where it’s even more predictable because it would be forced by the clock) – a moot point anyway (but for the super fluke pick).

In addition, Lynch might have fumbled as well, even if the odds of that were arguably even lower than of Wilson throwing a pick. (Remember, there the Patriots do have a free shot at the ball even if guarded by Lynch who is pretty good at holding onto it.  And with three shots from the one yard line the Patriots know they may need to knock the ball out as backup to stopping Lynch in the first place. Fumbles do happen on the goal line.)

Though again, the key point is that the odds of each – interception or fumble – are so low that with the game up in the air they really can’t be factored in rather than simply opting for the set of plays that, as offensive coordinator and head coach, Bevell and Carroll believe gave them the best chance of making sure they got into that end zone by the end of fourth down. And making sure, if they got to that fourth down – or even possibly to a fifth play due to a penalty – that they also had the time left on the clock to run it.

The fact that a team has a really good running back certainly doesn’t mean they should never throw the ball. And it doesn’t mean they should never throw the ball near the goal line – teams with good running backs do all the time – with success. That’s part of why it’s football, passes and runs are mixed in together.

And while we can argue that a different type of pass play was a “better” call, that again is the art of the game and the art of play calling itself – the latter of which is fairly subjective no matter how impassioned feelings to the contrary run after the fact.

The fact is – and it’s been overlooked by lot of popular analyses (although here are two that are reasonably solid) – there is huge variability on individual plays in football. So outcome, again, doesn’t usually determine whether something is a great call or horrible bad. It’s just a small clue, while play calling remains largely subjective, and if anything more often around the fringes of “iffy” or “solid” – as much as after the fact, in terms of their knowledge “before the fact,” nearly everybody suddenly has a crystal ball as to what was more likely to have happened on that particular play,

Again, the real awful strategy decision at the end of the game was actually made by one of the best – if not the best – coach of the modern era: BIll Bellichick.

Belichick, in not saving his team clock time in the (likely) event of a Seattle score, might have been hoping for the Seahawks to line up for an inside slant, for Butler to read it well, for Wilson to botch it and for it to work out perfectly for the interception and also for Seattle to only do so because the Patriots don’t use their timeout and give themselves a legitimate change to still tie the game after and in the event of a likely Seattle touchdown.

But that is somewhat wishful thinking, and a long shot in comparison with the substantive value that the Patriots decision with a minute left deprived themselves of – even more of a long shot in comparison given the reasonable likelihood of a Seattle score with three plays to run from the Patriots one yard line.

It just didn’t work out that way this time. Another time, it might have. And still another time, it would have. It’s the way it goes. Just as with this now famous – or infamous – slant call by the Seahawks that changed Super Bowl history.

 

Bill Belichick Makes a Huge Strategic Mistake in Super Bowl XLIX, Patriots Still Win

It was expected to be a great match-up, and what a match-up Super Bowl XLIX ultimately was.

There are multiple fantastic stories out of the game, not the least of which, albeit ultimately overshadowed by the Patriots victory at the end, was the exceptional performance by undrafted Chris Matthews of the Seahawks; who not long ago was working at Foot Locker when the Seahawks called him up for a tryout. (This is the same Matthews who recovered the onside kick in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, who but for that onside recovery by him would have almost assuredly been playing in this Super Bowl instead of Seattle.)

But Patriots head coach Bill Belichick – who no doubt about it is an excellent head coach, and whose team often makes fewer really egregious strategy mistakes than most others – made a big mistake with 1:01 remaining in the game.

Trailing 28-24 with 1:01 to go, the Seahawks Marshawn Lynch, a super tough clutch runner who had a fabulous game and who was barreling over Patriots for very tough yardage for much of the second half, had just barreled 4 yards to the 1 yard line on 1st down.

If the Seahawks scored on the next play to go up 27-24, the Patriots – in desperation mode with nothing to lose and four plays to advance the ball per each set of downs – would have had plenty of time to mount a drive to get into field goal range and at least tie the game at the end.

If they got the clock stopped by calling timeout.

(Heck, at the end of the first half, the Patriots drove for a touchdown in a little under two minutes, and then, although it was a bit of a fluke, the Seahawks then drove for a touchdown with 31 seconds left in the half. But a little over 50 seconds, while not great, would give the Patriots more than enough time to mount a quick field goal drive attempt.)

The whistle blew at 1:01 after the Lynch run to the 1, and the Patriots needed to immediately call a timeout.  A play from the 1 would likely take between 4 and 6 seconds, and if the Seahawks scored it would stop the clock again. They would kick off, and if the Patriots just downed the ball in the end zone, they would have around 55 to 56 seconds left.

Even if the Seahawks were stopped on their 2nd down play and scored on their 3rd, if the Patriots used another timeout (or the 2nd down play was an incomplete, stopping the clock), the Patriots would still have around 50 seconds left.

Don’t call that timeout and let the Seahawks run the clock down, and they won’t have time.

And the Seahawks did run it down, milking it all the way to 26 seconds before snapping the ball (maybe even too long); meaning if they scored The Patriots would have about 21 seconds left.

Because of the change in odds when there is no flexibility to ever throw in the middle of the field (and the defense can ignore it), or – barring one extremely long pass out of bounds – even so much as one incomplete, while teams get that last field goal with 50 seconds left all the time, it’s only under super fluky circumstances that they do it in 20 seconds; and even 30 seconds (which would have been the case had the Seahawks taken the clock down to a more comfortable 35 seconds and still scored on the very next play rather than on 3rd or 4th down instead), makes it a big long shot. (A team can also have a fluke kick return, but taking the ball out of the end zone is usually a mistake now with the deeper kickoffs, because the chances of big yardage is low, and just getting the ball out out to the 20 – which they’re automatically given just by downing it in the end zone, eats up another 5-7 seconds – which with even 30 seconds left is one fifth of the remaining game time.)

Presumably Belichick, among other things (including not thinking it through clearly), was aware that the Seahawks had used two of their timeouts, and possibly didn’t want to “give them” time.

But if so, this was fanciful: The Seahawks had one of the best – if not at this point the best – game managers at QB in the game. They had 61 seconds, and only four plays tops – barring some fluke penalty – left to run, with a net yard total ending it.

Lynch led the league in TDs this season. Wilson is incredibly versatile from the pocket, and if time became an issue, they could easily just run out of the shotgun and have Wilson scramble in or throw to the end zone for a TD or clock stopping incompletion.

By not calling that time out – in the fairly likely (though not assured) event of a Seahawks TD on 2nd or 3rd down – the Patriots completely threw away a good – and in fact but for a lucky stop of Seattle, critical – chance to tie the game at the end.

As it worked out, the Patriots won anyway. On 2nd down Wilson threw his first interception of the game, to Patriots DB Malcolm Butler, and history was made. The Patriots had their 4th Super Bowl victory of the dynamic Brady Belichick era, and by defeating last year’s Super Bowl champions they remained the only team this millennium still to repeat.

But the decision is not based upon outcome. The decision is based on the circumstances that existed at the time the call was made.

And at the time the call was made it may have given the Patriots a very small edge in terms of the Seahawks’ ultimate own clock availability (and obviously the Seahawks didn’t think so because if they did they certainly wouldn’t have purposefully milked it for another 10-15 seconds on top of the 20 -25 or so critical seconds that by not calling the timeout the Patriots stole away from themselves). But it it took away an enormously valuable opportunity for them, and was an extremely poor decision in terms of maximizing their chances of ultimately winning the game.

Teams – even the Patriots, who between Belichick and Brady generally handle the clock about as well as any team in the league – continue to underestimate the relevance of the clock at the ends of football games, and the remarkable difference being able to control that clock and provide enough time for a reasonable drive at the the end (or prevent an opponent from doing so), versus not being able to.

At the time, it is likely that Belichick wanted the Seahawks to be cognizant of the clock: To not have the full timeout period to cogitate, ruminate – perhaps privately remonstrate – over what play to run, hopefully make a mistake and lose some clock time, and perhaps be stopped once or twice and be a little constrained from so freely running Lynch out of the backfield.

All valid concerns. But they pale in comparison to the differential between the game being all but over if the Seahawks score, and it being still very much up in the air, and with the Patriots down by 3 and the ball in their hands last with some time to drive and get that 3.

The Patriots couldn’t have assured the latter in the case of a likely score (and when an opponent finds itself at your 1 line on 2d down, let alone with a QB like Wilson, they are likely to score). But they could have greatly increased their chances of seeing to it that if they failed to stop Seattle (as was likely), that they themselves were still very much in the ballgame, rather than instead, having all but a fluke shot or – depending on how many plays it took Seattle – essentially none at all.

Through ill advised sideline decision making – however hard to do while under the gun of general coaching duties (why teams could use a sideline adviser who understands the structural strategic components of the game and knows how to correctly assess situations quickly and broadly) – the Patriots took that huge opportunity away from themselves.