Wild End to Lions Seahawks Game Leads to Focus on Half the Equation

The Lions lost a close game Last Monday night in Seattle (where the Seahawks have still lost only twice in the now three plus seasons since Russell Wilson entered the league), after looking like they were going to pull it out at the end.

With less than two minutes to go, on 3rd and 1 from the Seattle 11, Lions quarterback Matt Stafford hit Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, who after the catch was en route for what looked like would be the go ahead touchdown.

As big as this was, and often unmentioned, the game still wouldn’t be over after the touchdown. Down by four, 17-13, the Seahawks would not have enough time to mount a perfect two minute type drill. But with 1:45 left and two timeouts to save them an extra 30 seconds or so or use the middle of the field more, they still had a pretty good shot. And under Russell Wilson, particularly at home, they’ve been pretty good at pulling out games at the end.

But just before the ball broke the plane of the goal line, the Seahawks Kam Chancellor knocked it loose, causing a fumble that rolled through to the back of the end zone.

The ball was about to go out of bounds, and no one was even near it: except for Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, who, not wanting to risk even the theoretical possibility of anything bizarre happening (such as trying to recover it and muffing it himself while somehow keeping it in the end zone), helped it along by a very purposeful slight right jab (video).

Which is illegal – although Wright clearly didn’t know, and even head coach Pete Carroll said he hadn’t been aware of the rule. And it should have been first down Lions ball inside the 1 yard line.

At which point, trailing 13-10, the Lions likely – but, against that Seattle defense that but for this last drive had essentially badly bottled them up all night – very much not assuredly, would have scored a TD (and taken critical time off the clock), or probably kicked a field goal. Nice Pro Football Talk column here, but that field goal doesn’t necessarily mean the game goes into overtime:

The Seahawks had two timeouts left, and would have used them immediately on any two staying in bounds running plays. A Detroit penalty that stopped the clock and that Seattle declined, would probably have also sufficed to save them a timeout. (Though Seattle likely would have taken it since any penalty was likely to push Detroit away from the goal line, but only depending on what down it was; for instance, likely figuring that after a failed third try in a row the Lions wouldn’t dare risk losing it all on yet a fourth short yardage attempt for the win, why give them a free third down play with still a “gimme” field goal as backup.) And any attempted pass play that led to an incomplete, or outside run or pass that went out of bounds, would have completely frozen the game clock and operated as effectively as another timeout.

Thus it’s likely that if Detroit tried a field goal on fourth down, Seattle would have had at least somewhere near a minute, and maybe about 1:20 or so left. Which in turn – although 1:20 is better – are both enough for a quick drive to get into field goal range and win the game even before it gets to overtime.

But, perhaps in an irony in a league that, particularly this year, seems to call – or maybe it just sees – way too many penalties), the penalty never got called. And the Seahawks were awarded the ball out at the 20 yard line for a touchback.

The Lions would still have an outside shot to tie, since they could stop the clock on two plays with their last two timeouts; and after a Seahawks punt if they could stop them, would have about 45 seconds, or around 1:20 if the Seahawks threw incomplete. (On average they wouldn’t be in quite as good a situation as the Seahawks would have been had the Lions been re-rewarded the ball inside the 1 and then kicked a 4th down field goal: Very short field goals take a few seconds – punts take longer – and the Seahawks were in a situation where running clock was probably paramount, while inside the 1 the Lions focus was on trying to score a touchdown and win. Though on the other hand, they may have come up with slightly better field position after the punt versus a post field goal kickoff.)

But on a 3rd and 2 the Seahawks connected on an unnecessarily long pass (though that was the play that was apparently the most open), and essentially ended the game.

Then ensued a near firestorm controversy about how the team was robbed, with the Lions giving hints of perhaps feeling a little bit sorry for themselves for having gotten somewhat “screwed” by the refs’ call, or, in this case, non call.

But the mild batting of the ball by K.J. Wright was a technical rule fluke that otherwise had no real bearing on the play; one that simply would have given the Lions an unexpected gift.

Sure, the refs made a mistake. But that mistake didn’t screw the Lions over. It kept the Lions from getting miraculously lucky on some fluke rule that the opposing player, among many, didn’t know about.

They still “should” have been given that opportunity to win it inside the one yard line, under the rules. But they also legitimately lost the game. Holding onto the football is perhaps the most important aspect of the game, and the Lions did not, at the most critical time, while on the other hand they had nothing to do with the fluke rule or K.J reaching the ball and electing to unknowingly (rulewise) bat it out rather than just run through it.

In essence the Lions got rescued by a fluke and otherwise completely irrelevant rule and circumstance. But then they got immediately unrescued by a mistake in judgment by the referees in either not being clear on the rule themselves, or not seeing that, in so far as there can be an “intentional batting” of the ball, Wright’s action’s were intentional.

Rescued by circumstances outside of one’s control and performance, then unrescued, is not getting screwed.

Sure, it was unlucky. But it was only unlucky because it was first lucky for them for Wright to even get to the ball before it went out of the end zone anyway, and do what many players in that situation, playing “heads up” but unaware of the rule, might have done; and thus make sure that a ball going out of the end zone – that but for Wright touching it was going to anyway -did so.

So they got lucky and unlucky. Yet almost all that’s seemingly been focused on is the unlucky and fairly random part, and not how it that part was only created by an equal amount of completely unexpected luck to begin with a moment earlier. And how driving for the go ahead touchdown, they fumbled the ball, and lost the game, not the referees.

The rulebook, through obscure application, almost rescued them. And the refs, through then botching that application, failed to do so, in a blown call. But the game was blown by the Lions, not the refs.

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The Monopoly “Pick a Chance Card” Effect of NFL Personal Fouls

Football penalty flags, particularly for “personal fouls,” have made a small but relevant portion of the game somewhat like Monopoly’s “chance” cards Continue reading

Packer’s Make Hideous Strategic Call Against Seahawks In Championship Game, Then Do It Again

Football strategy decision making is about maximizing value by the decision made.

Normally, this means simply maximizing the expected point value of a decision. When points have differing values – usually near the ends of football games, and under specific circumstances – maximizing value then takes that into account as well.

But the right decision in football is always to maximize overall value.

Most of the time, as your team doesn’t know how the end of the game will play out, which points you absolutely need, which ones you should have given up for a better chance at more points, etc, each point is simply worth a point, equal in value to every other point.

So unless your team is already way ahead (then decrease volatility to decrease any chance for your opponent of scoring a huge number of points), way behind (then increase volatility to increase any chance of scoring a huge number of points yourself) or often late in the game when there are additional factors based on oddities of the scoring structure of football (clock, certainty, the value of a certain number of points depending on the score and situation and most likely way that it is going to or can play out, etc – all a key subject of the book I’m currently working on), the only decision that maximizes overall value is the one that maximizes overall point value.

And so it was in the first quarter of the 2014 NFC Conference Championship Game, when – after an interception by the Seahawks Richard Sherman, then an interception off a tipped ball by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of the Packers 3 plays later, then a 12 yard pass and a 6 yard run down to the 1 – the heavy underdog Green Bay Packers got stopped twice in a row from the Seattle Seahawks 1 yard line on goal to go plays.

The stoppages ultimately brought up a 4th and goal from well inside the 1; inches, more than anything, from the goal line. The score was 0-0, and 8:10 remained in the 1st quarter.

Mike McCarthy, who leads the Pack, is a fantastic head coach. But to be a HC and excellent in the required fields of leadership, teaching, motivation, management, public relations, football knowledge and play designs and strategy, can also make it difficult to have a solid grasp of the sometimes more obtuse area of the underlying structural strategy of the game.

This often leads to a lot of poor decisions. (Here is but one such example among many hundreds from this NFL season alone.)

In the Packers situation, with the ball so close to the goal line that the ensuing field goal has been recorded as an 18 yarder rather than the traditional 19 yarder from the “1” yard line, McCarthy made an extraordinarily counter productive decision. (That’s French slang for “horrible.”)

It was a decision that at the time made, significantly helped his opponent’s chances in the game, and lessened those of his own team: And this ultimately, is all that strategic decision making in NFL football games comes down to; namely, increasing your team’s chances of winning by the decision at the time the decision is made, and not your opponents’.

Clearly McCarthy was worried about the fact that the Seahawks have an excellent defense, an excellent goal line defense, and had stopped the Packers on the two prior plays, and in the past. (Sportscaster and former Cowboy Great Troy Aikman even made this point at the time during the broadcast of the game.)

But here’s why it was an absolutely horrendous, if “understandable” decision: First, prior performance – particular recent prior performance, does provide a small clue regarding how a similar ensuing play or attempt may work out. But that’s all it does.

It doesn’t indicate how a successive or later similar play will work out, or heavily change the odds from what they are in that situation in general, with that particular offense, against that particular defense.

The Seahawks no doubt have a strong defense. But unless there is almost no time left to play in a football game and the offensive team finds trails by 3 or less or leads by 2 or less, no team, no matter how poor their offense, and no matter how good the defense, should ever kick a field goal in that situation that close to the goal line. (Or, most of the time, even anywhere in that general area.)

Such a situation – as we’ll shortly see is so lopsided that the above statement can be made so categorically yet accurately.

But, the Packers also don’t have a poor offense. In fact they they have a very solid offensive line; which at times, if not on the past two plays, was getting a little bit of push against the Seattle defense and sometimes opening up holes for running back Eddie Lacy. And had been doing so for much of the season.

But regardless of offenses or defenses and prattle about “good offenses, bad offenses,” etc. Here’s the essence of the situation: The value of going for that 4th down conversion is the value of the touchdown times the chances of that touchdown being made, plus the value of being stopped (versus an ensuing kickoff after a touchdown or field goal) times the chances of being stopped. (And if a team is that poor relative to their opponent that in an otherwise categorically lopsided situation it may not be a greater value to go for it – hard to imagine here regardless – that team is likely going to get crushed in the game anyway and needs to increase variance or volatility, and thus go for it anyway.)

Understanding what that means is crucial for a team being able to make the right decision in these situations – and we’ll look at what it means in a moment. And there probably are no great statistics that can do justice to the actual chances of the Packers successfully making that 4th down conversion.

Yet by putting statistics too far aside – or more accurately any prior record of relevant probabilities – the problem that human nature leads to and that head coaches sometimes understandably over indulge in, is to take “hunches” over what might or might not happen on the next play, and conflate those hunches or guesses with some sort of relevant knowledge about the outcome of an ensuing play.

In close situations these hunches are fine. (More on this and how to differentiate between subjective guesses and analyses made based upon specific, observed factors in conjunction with a history of such experience, in another post.)

But coaches can’t know outcomes in advance. And the fact is the probability of scoring from well inside the 1 yard line is reasonably high. Even if the Packers had been stopped on the two prior plays and the Seahawks defense is very strong, their chances are not suddenly that out of whack with the Packers general overall chances against strong defenses in that type of a field down and distance situation.

We could go into pages of statistics, but to come to the correct strategy call here we don’t need to, because the call is so lopsided. For instance, even if McCarthy, from inches out, decided that his team only had a ridiculously low 1 in 3 chance of making that touchdown (a near ludicrous assumption) it was still a poor decision to go for it.

But their chances were not that low, or likely anywhere close – average teams are about 50% from the two yard line. And this pitted a good offense against a good defense, from a half yard out or less, so it was very likely above 50%, prior plays notwithstanding. As we’ll see, an upgrade in their chances from a near ludicrously low 1 in 3 to a more reasonable figure makes the correct strategic call here remarkably lopsided – and it’s not what the Packers opted to do.

However, even if the chances of making the touchdown were a miserably, unrealistically, low 1 in 3, the value of the attempt in terms of scoring alone is still the value of making the touchdown, times the chances of being successful. Here that would be 7 points times 1 in 3 or 33%, or .33(7) or  2.31 points. (On the other hand, if the chances of making that conversion were 2 in 3, the value of the attempt in terms of scoring alone would be worth 4.7 points.)

Wait, you say, 2.31 points is less than the 3 they get from a field goal. Or you might even say “but they might not get the 7 points!”

The fact (at the ridiculously low chance of only 1 in 3 of making a foot or so) that it is less than the 3 points from the field goal does not mean the attempt is worth less than the field goal, as there is also substantial value in getting stopped around or inside of an opponent’s 1 yard line versus kicking off and having their opponent start out around the 20 yard line or better, as we will see in a moment.

But on the latter point of the two above, it also does not matter that they might not “get” the touchdown. They might not score the next time they have the ball, the next 3rd and 8 with a receiver open past the 1st down marker might not make the catch, or their opponents might not score on the next possession, or their opponents might, etc. Every play in football involves an unknown; and for most of them the unknown is the biggest element.

This decision is no different. Since all points are equal in value (1 point equals 1 point) barring special end game circumstances where the conditions make some points more valuable than others – and the team with the most points at the end wins – all that matters is maximizing them.

You don’t neglect to throw to an open receiver 48 yards down the field and choose to throw a much easier to catch pass to an open receiver 8 yards down the field (unless there is a minute and one timeout left in the game and you faced a 3rd and  7 from your opponents 28 yard line, for example, and you either led by a small margin and needed to close out the game or trailed by 2 or less), simply because you don’t know the outcome.

And so it is, again, with every play and every decision in football – unless, in certain specific, often late game and condition specific circumstances knowing the outcome or having a higher probability of an outcome on top of the point value of it, offers some extra value. (Such as when leading by 6 with 3 minutes to play and coming upon a very short 4th down conversion well inside field goal range, where the right call would normally be to keep the ball (despite the fact that teams normally don’t), here you do kick the field goal because of the extra value of ensuring that you make it a two score game under those clock conditions.)

To play winning football, all you do as a team is maximize value, which takes into account what maximizes your team’s chances of ultimately winning the game. Nothing more – and nothing less. And in most situations (and certainly here in the first half of a game where one team is not completely blowing out the other) that means maximizing your points or expected point value alone.

In the situation the Packers were in, you can’t know whether each point from the “3”  you will get from kicking the field goal is going to wind up being worth more or less per point by the end of the game then each point from the “7” you will get if you score the touchdown. All you do know, and can know, is that the field goal is worth 3 points, and you will get it if you try, and the touchdown is worth 7 and you or your team may get it if you try.

There is no value here in definitely getting the 3 points. None. Zilch. This is a tough concept. But not getting it is a big impediment to good football strategy, whereas getting it is critical to good football strategic decision making.

The team (or head coach, or strategy advisor) who does, and who also knowns when – under what circumstances – and why there is extra value in some degree of certainty, will have an immediate advantage over all other teams.

It probably feels like there is value (and is probably a large part of the reason the Packers went for it), but there is none. It’s just points. Staying 0 – 0 but possibly going up 7-0 versus assuredly going up 3-0 doesn’t have any less value per point simply because, in the first scenario, you do not know if you will “temporarily” take a decent but small single full score lead, nor does going up 3-0 have any more value simply because versus the first scenario you do know you will “temporarily” take a (piddling, minimal, 3 point field goal) lead.

This is so key to good strategic decision making in football in most situations it can’t be emphasized enough. (Once again, to be clear, in those situations where each point is not worth one point, and there is some additional value in either certainty, in a higher probability, or in achieving a certain number of points or achieving something relative to the clock, those become part of the same value equation in terms of simply doing that which maximizes your teams’ chances of having the most points at the end of the football contest and winning the game: Which again, in our instance here, and until end game situations in most instances of games, simply means maximizing your expected point value.)

But remember, there is a key second part to this equation that is often overlooked by teams (though less so over the past 5 or years as decisions in these general close in goal situations have become a little less abhorrent than in the past).

That part is the difference between making a field goal (the decision if your team does not elect to go for it on 4th down), and what happens after that field goal in terms of value; and going for it and failing on the conversion attempt.

Remember, if you make the touchdown on your 4th down attempt, you kick off. This is the same thing that happens if you make a field goal – after the field goal you also kick off. The ensuing results are identical – the only difference being that in the one (piddling) instance you scored a field goal for 3 points, and the other you scored a touchdown for 7.

Football plays are about probabilities. If the Packers go for the conversion, and try a pass play, they might take a sack, but it is unlikely. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers – who looked to finally be moving around well after that calf injury a few weeks back that hampered him in the season ending and division clinching win over the Detroit Lions, and slightly in their close (and somewhat lucky) win over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs last week – might roll out with an option to pass or run to the pylon, and lose a few yards. Or as with any play in football – but with such low odds that the negative value is negligible – something fluky could happen.

Most likely the Packers would try a run in such a short yardage situation, even if they thought the Seahawks likely expected it, and even a quarterback sneak,; which being able to move first off the snap, gives the offense a decided advantage even in goal line situations, in very short yardage situations. A sneak that failed would likely gain a couple of inches, or lose a foot or two, and a running play, even one designed only for very short yardage, could lose a little more.

Thus overall the reasonable yard line range if the Packers get stopped, is somewhere inside the 1 yard line  a solid majority of times, and probably around the 1 yard line or just outside of it, on average.

This is big. After a kickoff, the average starting point is about the 22 yard line. This represents a net gain for the Packers defense of about 20, 21 yards on average.

There are all sorts of ways to approximate the point value of x number of yards (which often tend to oversimplify, as yards have different values depending on where they are on the field relative to each team’s scoring range).

But assigning about a point value to 20 yards is in line with many of them, and a little bit on the low side, and about 1.2 points is probably also a decent accounting; again realizing that they are all just guestimates, no matter how rigorously arrived at, based upon assumptions. But the value of those yards, whatever the number, is very real.

Normally yardage for an offense deep inside their own territory is worth less than yardage close to or past midfield, which is why the assignment of a traditional half a point per 8 yards (thus say 1.25 points value for the Packers if the Seahawks start out 20-21 yards further back) may be a little high. But by the same token, this yardage could become worth more for the Packers offense after an ensuing punt, for the flip side of the same reason:

That is, suppose the Seahawks go three and out, and punt. The Packers will likely start in extremely good field position, close to scoring range, making the value of gaining ensuing 1st downs (with maybe just 1 or 2 1st downs putting them right back into scoring range) a little higher than at some other random point on the field for them.

But there is additional value here due to the structure of the field. Backing a team up very close to the goal line has additional worth because it hampers the flexibility of the quarterback – even a great decision maker and athlete like the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson. He has to be very careful on any pass attempt. And it curtails the flexibility of the opposing team for the same reason. (Though sometimes defenses subconsciously let up a little bit when opponents are very deep, because the opponents “have such a long way to go.” This is a big mistake, and most great defenses that play to win do not do this.)

One decent pop in the end zone and it’s two points for a Safety and possession back of the ball (making the Safety a more valuable score than the field goal, because it delivers two thirds of the points, and more importantly, a brand new possession of the ball).

But even without the Safety, the quarterback will have far less time simply because he can’t risk taking that Safety, or worse, getting that ball stripped away in the end zone – where merely falling on it by the defense means an automatic 7 points.

On top of this, if the opponent can be contained near the goal line, their punter, due to the constraints of the end zone, won’t have as much room to get his punt off, and will have to hurry, resulting in a shortened kick, and less hang time and less coverage time for the punting team, often leading to immediate good field position on the punt recovery, as well as an increased chance of a solid punt return.

Thus when teams punt from inside their 5 yard line, very often they gain less than the average yardage from a punt where the punter can otherwise wail away and not worry about it bouncing into the end zone for a touchback (such when not punting from near mid, and often poorly advised past midfield punts), due to these same reasons, and thus start out across midfield or better: already knocking on the door, or near knocking on the door, of their scoring range.

Thus while a lot of time this value will not come to fruition, the reasonable chance at a Safety, initial curtailment of the offense, and the chance, if they can stay semi curtailed, at a bigger advantage off of their ensuing punt, add additional and specific value – beside the sheer differential in yards versus an kickoff – to getting stopped on a 4th and very short and leaving one’s opponent at or in this instance likely well inside their own 1 yard line.

Let’s give that a conservative value of half a point, which is probably low since it provides the Packers a good opportunity to get the ball back well past midfield and a 1st down or so away from field goal range or better.

This yields a value of getting stopped, on average, and conservatively, of about 1.5 points, and probably a little bit more (the traditional 1.25 + our semi-conservative half a point for likely leaving an opponent – though the term is far too loosely used for most “deep” punts – actually pinned against their goal line).

If the chances of making that touchdown are again a miserably underestimated 1 in 3, then the value of going for it would be the value of making the touchdown times the chance of that happening, or .33(7), plus the value of getting stopped and the average starting field position for the defense over kicking off times the chance of that happening, or .66(1.5), or 3.3 points total.

This is a decent amount more than the field goal. And it is using conservative estimates for the value of leaving the Seahawks on average around their 1 yard line or worse, and more importantly using a ridiculously, almost ludicrously low estimate for their chances of making the touchdown in the first place.

If with inches more than yards to go for the touchdown the Packers chances were really as low as 1 in 3 – never give up of course – but metaphorically they might as well have walked out of the stadium at that point and caught a flight home. Because if getting a fraction of a yard on any one play is that low of a probability, despite the generally high probability of getting such small yardage (even in general goal line situations, which is tougher because the defense has an extremely short field to cover and knows the opponent precisely needs only a very small bit of yardage), they don’t stand a snowball’s chance in you know where of winning the game.

Again, there is not a large enough sample size to really know the exact chances of the Packers, facing 4th and inches. You can look at all inside the 1 yard line situations, but 4th downs are a little different, because the offense knows it has to make it and defenses knows it’s pulled off a strong move if it gets the stop on that one specific play. (Not that that changes odds all that much, but it does introduce another element that may be relevant.)

You can look at all teams in general, but better information comes from strong offenses – in particular those with strong run blocking or off the line push offensive lines – against strong defenses, strong front seven defenses, and maybe strong inside the 10 yard line defenses against appropriate (also strong) offenses, if again the sample size is large enough to really make a substantive distinction within their overall defensive play.

And it comes from the general play of the Packers offensive line in recent weeks (and in those and similar situations) and the Seahawks defensive line play in recent weeks (and in those and similar situations) as well as, a little bit, so far in this game. (Which wasn’t much, although it did consist of some nice stops by the Seahawks, then some nice blocking, then the two stops from the 1). Going back to when the teams played 17 games earlier in week 1 of the season is probably pretty pointless, even if apt to stick in a coach’s mind too much.

Let’s take a 50% chance at the touchdown just to get a more realistic feel for the value of trying for the touchdown here (which is again what matters – namely the value of the attempt itself), in comparison with the value of trying for the field goal.

In general 50% would be too low for such an extremely short yardage goal line situation (and ridiculously low if it were not a goal line situation, where the probabilities are closer to 80% or better). But even with the Packer’s good offense, the Seahawks have a strong defense, and at least the last two plays- simple variance of football and or good defensive guesswork or anticipation or not – Seattle had also played strongly, and the Packer’s offensive line not as much as usual. So keeping this figure low is reasonable.

(Generally the odds are around 50%, or lately a little higher, from about the 2 yard line, which also represents the place a team starts on a 2 point conversion. When there is only a foot or so to go, the odds go up, but again, we’re accommodating for the facts that the Seahawks defense had stymied the Packers at the line a few times – on the last 2 plays and very early in the drive before then being a bit run over – and that in general it is a very strong defense, notwithstanding the Packer’s strong offense and solid offensive line.)

This more reasonable (and possibly even still low) approximation puts the value of the attempt at 3.5 points (the 7 point value of the TD times the .5 probability of it occurring) + .75 points (the conservative 1.5 value, versus kicking off after a field goal times the .5 probability of the stop occurring, of leaving the Seahawks likely backed right up to their own goal line, times the .5 probability of getting stopped), or about 4.25 points.

Even these numbers may underestimate the value, since the Packers chances of making the touchdown, with only inches to go, may well have been higher. (If they were 60%, the value of the attempt becomes 4.8 points – almost 5 points) And leaving the Seahawks inside the 1 may be a little more valuable than what we’re assigning to it.

But the bottom line is that there is no realistic scenario where the value of going for that field goal is as high as the value of going for the touchdown attempt here.

Since there is no extra value in “making” the field goal (as, say, there would be if there were 3 minutes left and the Packers led by 6, or if there was 40 seconds left and they led by a couple or trailed by 1 or 2), the decision is categorically counter productive, and probably horrendous. And it cost the Packers significant value, and gave significant value to the Seahawks, all through strategic decision making alone.

There is also the psychological aspect. Or there could be one perceived, so let’s quickly address it, because it factors into games too often, and often in the wrong way:

In a nutshell, barring extraordinary and unusual circumstances, if a team has to harm it’s own chances – here significantly – just to create the right “psychology,” it either has much bigger problems, or the situation is not being explained properly.

Also, players normally want to play to win, not play to “avoid” losing.

As far as the other team goes, again barring unusual circumstances where there is little upside but huge downside (such as when way ahead and playing a sleeping – listless – but otherwise very competent team you don’t want to wake up), the same thing applies: Don’t worry about the psychology of the other team. Play to win and it will take care of itself.

Showing them you are not afraid of their defense, regardless of outcome, certainly won’t hurt that. And whatever imagined “spark” (as if the Seahawks needed spark in an NFC championship game) they might get from stopping your team, would quickly be offset by the fact that they will then likely find themselves pinned up against their goal line, and you can get it right back by stopping them and getting a shortened punt. Not to mention the anti spark for them om the flip side of your team”giving up” the measly 3, and slamming that football home on 4th down for the key full extra 4 points.

What likely drove even a great, and often less fearful, coach like McCarthy, on some level, was likely a “fear” of getting stopped, and a “fear” of coming away with “no points.” But what McCarthy and all teams and head coaches need to fear is losing the game; nothing else in terms of outcome during the course of it.

Since the possibility of “missing out” on those 3 points has no negative value in terms of the value opportunity presented here, and the value of a field goal attempt versus the value of going for the touchdown, “taking” the field goal in order to “ensure” getting 3 points had nothing to do with increasing the Packers chances of winning. Maximizing the opportunity here, and the value of their decision – instead of minimizing the value of their decision – had everything to do with it.

___________

Unfortunately, and even more surprisingly, but again likely for some of the very same reasons, finding themselves on the Seahawks 1 yard line (though this time not quite as close to the goal line) facing a 4th down and now leading 3-0, with 5:10 left to go in the 1st quarter, the Packers again kicked the field goal. This, if not quite as horrific as the earlier decision when they had closer to inches to go than a yard, was also a horrible decision, for similar reasons. (although in some ways possibly even worse because they had just kicked a field goal from the 1 yard line, for cripes sake: In some ways getting stopped on 4th down would have been better than the awfulness of getting to an opponent’s 1 yard line twice in a row and willingly coming away with only 3 points each time.)

The Seahawks, down 19-7 late, then 19-14 after scoring a touchdown after the Packers’ Morgan Burnett was on the receiving end of Russell Wilson’s 4th interception of the day (this one, like the one earlier by Clinton – Dix, also off of a tipped ball), successfully recovered an onside kick that bounced off the hands of the Packer’s Brandon Bostick which, with only 1 Seattle timeout remaining, would – barring an ensuing fluke – all but have won the game for the Packers.

The Seahawks then scored, fairly quickly (again) with the reasonably shortened field after the successful onside kick, and made the two point conversion to pull ahead by 3: Good move, since the Packers then drove to a tying field goal – which would have otherwise won them the game – and the Seahawks then won it in overtime on a TD pass on the opening drive of overtime.

While the Packers were already in very good shape, and would have almost assuredly won the game but for the missed onside kick recovery, the pick by Burnett was still probably one of the more egregious on field during the course of play strategic mistakes made in a long time.

It’s true that after a turnover, defensive teams then themselves lose the ball (turning it back over again) far higher than the general average for turnovers on any offensive running or run after the catch play. (Which as an aside to teams should be a wakeup call to preach and practice ball security for defensive players as well, since these turnovers take away opportunities just as valuable as any other turnover – and often more so, because they happen before the temporarily recovering team has even run a 1st down play.)  But the chances are still low; and the way to guard against this is to protect the ball. But Burnett elected to simply slide as if the game was essentially over.

It wasn’t, there was still 5:13 left to play, and the Packers led by less than two touchdowns.

They shouldn’t (and the Packers shouldn’t have here), but teams do lose games in those situations, and it’s not all that rare. Burnett picked the ball off on the run at about his own 39 and then slid down to the ground just past the 43 yard line, with no Seahawks player anywhere close. (Burnett, for his part, says he received a signal to just get down after the pick.)

Getting as many yards as possible, while protecting the ball, and giving the Packers a good chance to add a field goal to go up to a much more solid 15 point lead was a key opportunity. Purposefully neglecting it through mis-assessment of the situation and likely over presumption that the game was essentially won, was another Packer mistake.

The Packers then ran the ball 3 times in a row, losing 4, then 2, and then gaining 2 yards, and then punted. The Seahawks then scored quickly, made the onside kick, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Green Bay did not “lose” the game because of the exceedingly poor early 4th down decisions. There is no way to know how the game would have turned out, and the fact that they did lose is not an indictment on the earlier decisions (which had they won would have been all but forgotten, but would still have been remarkably poor decisions, if “understandable.”)

What is an indictment are the decisions in the face of the circumstances that existed at the time they were made. They didn’t lose the game because of them; but they increased their chances of losing the game. And in fact wound up, in this case, losing the game. And thus here not going to the Super Bowl.

There’s a reasonable chance that in this case – even though it was early in the game and it’s normally late game structural decision making that has the most profound impact upon game outcomes – that decent basic structural decision making would have kept the Packers from missing out on McCarthy’s second Super Bowl trip (out of 7 trips to the playoffs, equaled only by the New England Patriots since the 2007 season), in his 9 seasons as Packers head coach. But several other things, as is usually the case, did as well.

Not, however, ultimately, bad luck, as it was by virtue of a somewhat lucky tipped ball on a 1st down play from the Seahawks 46 yard line, that fell into the arms of Burnett with just over 5 minutes remaining and a 12 point lead, that put the Packers into a very commanding drivers seat to win a game they should have won anyway.

Soft play on defense after their quick three runs and out, as it so often does in these situations, likely contributed as well. As of course ultimately, did the always challenging but ever so important act in the game of football – hanging onto the ball when it it is loose and comes in contact with one’s hands – as it did against a Packer’s player, up front “just to block” or not, on the Seattle onside kick attempt.

Developing better softer hands until securely grasping a loose football becomes a more natural and unyielding act can be practiced more thoroughly and in different ways outside of game time; but when flubbed during the course of play, is traditionally unintentional. And Brandon Bostick, a “blocker” on the recovery, simply made a mistake he did not intend, and feels bad enough about.

Bad strategic decisions on the other hand, though not intended as “bad” decisions, obviously, are intentional.

And that is why NFL teams, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the pursuit of winning over the course of a season, should not be making them: if through no other means than hiring an assistant who thoroughly understands the strategic nature of the game, to help with this process – something all teams (yes, even the Patriots, if a little bit less than most), could use.

 

 

 

 

Week 12 NFL Picks Against the Spread

Week 11 record ATS, including Thursday Night Football’s Bills Dolphins debacle (this blog picked the Bills):  4-2-1

Most of the recap of week’s 11 picks – with some extra analysis on the Panthers Falcons game, and a brief comparison of the NFC South (where the top two teams are tied for the division lead at 4-6) and the NFC West (where the bottom dweller lags well behind at 4-6) – is now here.

One of the notes worth re-mentioning from last’s week’s picks:

If there’s going to be an upset pick, this is it. And the Saints, so dominant at home, lose their 2nd straight here.”

Despite ultimately being a favorite in the game by 8 points over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints lost 27-10 for their second straight home loss.

One of the bloke’s I deeply admire – I just can’t remember who, so it would be foul to throw out a name (I WILL find it an update) on “Around The NFL” this week proclaimed the Saints will not lose 3 in a row at home, because “they never have under Sean Payton.” (It might have been Jamie Dukes, now that I think about it, and he’s pretty good with his overall football analyses I think.)

But the fact they never have lost three in a row doesn’t mean they won’t now. Also since they haven’t lost twice in a row that often under head coach Sean Payton (they’ve been a very good team under him and quarterback Drew Brees, AND have won a lot more at home than on the road on top of that) they haven’t been in a situation where they even could lose 3 in a row that much to begin with.  Even less, when considering that the team they face for their possible and unprecedented 3rd straight home loss, is pretty good.

See picks below. Hopefully by the time you (and I) arrive there, I will have a clue to this one of many wild and fantastic NFL match-ups this week – the Baltimore Ravens at the New Orleans Saints. But the game does present at least a reasonable chance of the Saints hitting that home trifecta.

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As always, the following picks are either for the purposes of earning enough funds through legitimate wagering in Vegas to start a large non profit organization to find a cure for cancer, or post-facto bragging rights.

But don’t count on this week’s picks too heavily. Several of last week’s picks – most notably the Bengals, who had a very good chance to win that game outright and were getting a touchdown plus – were somewhat easy calls. And even the week before – where this blog had a few huge calls (winning by a lot, and twice calling the Jets upset of the Steelers outright), and a few closes losses for a miserable 3 – 3 – was somewhat easier.

This week, is not.

Chiefs (-7.5) at Raiders

This is a long standing rivalry. The Chiefs know how to win. And after seeing Oakland battle Denver super tough for nearly a full half two weeks ago (batting down a remarkable 5 Peyton Manning passes at the line in the short time span) before, well, completely falling apart, and then putting up a decent game last week against a Chargers team that saw the return to their lineup of Ryan Matthews, Manti Te’0, and Melvin Ingram, they know Oakland can in theory battle with them a little bit.

But at 0-10, and playing Denver tough for a half, and ultimately making it a somewhat close game with San Diego, is not enough. They are likely to give their best effort again.  And this game almost smells of upset. But one would think the Chiefs can sniff that same scent, and do not want to lose a division game.

Close call, but:

Pick: Raiders 

Also (nearly) always, the rest of this football weekend’s picks will be updated later in the week, or weekend prior to Sunday’s games.

(11-23-14) Updated – Voila:

At 1-0 on the week so far, following last week’s 4-2-1, we could just call it a wrap and finish up a a second straight above .500 week ATS. But let’s tangle with a few of these, including the toughest game of all: The aforementioned Saints, taking on that iconic black bird that is evermore.

Ravens (+3.4) at Saints (Monday Night Football)

Two teams who have been very successful under the current respective head coaches and quarterbacks, and both of whom tend to be significantly better home teams than road teams.

The Saints are in a weaker division, and are 4-6, but don’t be fooled by their record. They lost a close game (by a point) against Detroit in week 7, where they actually outplayed Detroit, who needed a break or two at the end to pull out the win.  They lost two games in overtime (against Atlanta in week 1, 37-34, and 27-24 in week 10 against a desperate, if still Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis less San Francisco 49ers).  And possibly lagging a little bit on the fact that Browns are competitive this year, they lost 26-24 to a Browns comeback at the end of the game in Cleveland in week 2.)

And it’s possible the Ozzie Newsome magic has worn off a little bit, and the Ravens really aren’t that good after their long stretch of competitive – and post season competitive -seasons.

And of course the wild card in this game is that the Saints are playing at home.

This will come as sacrilege, as I’m personally a huge Drew Brees fan. I don’t know him, and the rush to presume things about people good and bad is rampant in human nature, but Brees appears to be a truly remarkable guy. And he’s an phenomenal quarterback:

But he’s not always quite as clutch in tough games as some of the other greats, and if some pressure can be gotten to him, he doesn’t always tend to respond as well as a few other quarterbacks. And while the Saints win their share of close games, on average I would take Flacco (who truly has been “Joe Cool” more often than not) – not that he’s at Brees’ level – in a close game at the end.

So getting 3.5 points, particularly in an NFL where – due to a flurry of reasons, but most notably the continual tweaking of the rules under commissioner Roger Goodell to favor offenses, and most notably passing, over defenses – where very high scoring games are occurring with more frequency – is not really a big deal in this game. Still, just to follow up on the Saints last week, and given that this is a heavyweight bout between two seasoned teams looking at a tough road ahead, take them, as, though the odds may be slightly against, the Saints could hit that third straight loss.  We’ll know late Sunday Afternoon.  This is truly one of several fantastic match-ups on the weekend:

Pick: Ravens
Titans (+11) at Eagles

Tennessee played tough against Pittsburgh last week, on Monday Night Football where Pittsburgh, under Ben Rothlisberger, has been dominant for years.  The Steelers were missing a few key players – including Safety Troy Polamalu –  but it was still a better effort by the Titans, who may finally be creeping towards decency.

If they are, and even though we should expect a  strong bounce back after last week’s embarrassment in Green Bay from the seemingly very well coached Philadelphia Eagles, the Titans stand a strong chance of putting up a game here.

Despite my call that the Titans offseason coaching switch (even if they provided their prior head coach, Mike Munchak, a theoretical “out” towards remaining if he fired most of his coaching staff)  was an ill thought out move, it wasn’t clear new head coach Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t at least alsodecent coach. But if by this point the Titans can’t battle in this game, that would, on top of a dismal downturn season – represent more solid evidence in that direction.

Here’s rooting for Whisenhunt, another good football game, and perhaps a sneak surprise that the team from Tennessee has finally clawed its way out of that bottom rung of bad teams. (Though I  hate to pick against Sanchez, who I’ve always thought was a bit underrated; but Philly can still win by 10.)

Pick: Titans

Cardinals (+7) at Seahawks

Last season, in a remarkable final stretch to close out the season for the powerhouse NFC West, a desperate Arizona Cardinals team somehow managed to go into Seattle in week 16 and hand the Seahawks their first home loss ever under then second year quarterback Russell Wilson.

But this year, the defending Super Bowl champs are 3 games behind the Cardinals, have their backs against the wall, and are locked in a tough second place battle with San Francisco – who just got back defensive lineman extraordinaire Aldon Smith, who may still get back linebacker Navorro Bowman before the season ends, and who will probably see Defensive Tackle Glenn Dorsey return to action next week.

And Seattle has still very rarely lost under Wilson at home.  Motivation, especially for good teams with character – and the Seahawks have exhibited this – matters.

In short, this is near or just about a playoff  game for the Seahawks, who simply can’t afford to lose a division match-up, let alone against the front-runner. They also have a lot of pride riding on the line; and by knocking off the division leading champs – Carson Palmer or no Carson Palme – and jumping back into the race, they can show they still legitimately belong.

Still, Arizona is a football team.  They’re a unit. And while they could easily lose by 10 or 14 here, and are at a disadvantage with Palmer sidelined for the duration of the season, they don’t seem like the type of team, under second year head coach Bruce Arians, to just cruise on the fact that they can “afford” this loss.

An, though the edge clearly goes to Seattle in this must win game for them – at home where they do rarely lose – a full touchdown is simply too much against a scrappy division foe playing as a cohesive unit.

Pick: Cardinals

Rams (+5) at Chargers

This game is one of the best games of the season. Sure it doesn’t feature two powerhouses, but for pure football intrigue this is it.

The 4-6 Rams have played well against powerhouse division foes the last few years, but not so much outside of the division. But after going into Arizona and holding the lead until nearly halfway through the 4th quarter (this blog picked them getting 7 at Arizona, but they then turned the ball over, and then gave up two touchdowns to the defense, on 3 successive drives to end the game), the Rams came home and beat the mighty Denver Broncos last week. Solidly.

San Diego meanwhile, which along with New England has been just about the hottest team late November and December in the NFL the last few seasons, this year started strong; and then, suffering a few injuries, has floundered a bit.

The Chargers got three relevant players back last week, a 13-6 victory of the Oakland Raiders (who went on, see pick above, to upset the Chiefs this past Thursday Night for their first win of the season): outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, inside linebacker Manti Te’o, and running back Ryan Matthews.  And if they are the team they looked to be early in the season this is the type of game, at home, where they are going to crush any but a very good football team.

So that’s the question, and the answer is unknown. One win against Denver for a team that has been moderately mediocre with sporadic periods of strong play against division foes here and there does not make the Rams a strong team.

But the book is still out on the Chargers, also.  This is more of a pick made simply because it is just a fascinating football game. And in such a game, a little more than 2/3 of of a touchdown seems like slightly better odds.

But it’s not quite like the Seattle game, where you have to figure Arizona has at least the same, if not a greater, chance of upsetting Seattle than the Rams do here, and a bigger chance – given the way they play and their consistency – of keeping it close. (Maybe.)

But ultimately this is a pick that respects the Ram’s potential, and treats the Chargers like a solid, strong but still quasi middle of the pack team until they show they are back.  It’s an iffy pick, but probably not a horrible one, in a tough game:

Pick: Rams 

Dolphins (+6) at Broncos

Beware 6 point games: Games in the NFL are either close, or they’re not. When they are close, it means that the gap is usually between 3 and 6 points, by the nature of the math of the game.  . Occasionally 7.

Getting 6 versus 3 points in such a game is a tremendous difference. And usually a team favored by less than 7 is a reflection of the fact, or perception, that the better team is not that dominant that a lopsided game is as likely as some others, making the relevance of that 6 points notable.

Denver was dominant last year, until the Super Bowl. (Where, against a good defense – and here they face a good defense in the Dolphins – they got crushed).

They improved this offseason on paper. But they may not have improved in reality.  Something might not be clicking. And the Dolphins have been flying a little bit under the radar.

So if Denver doesn’t get it clicking, not only will this be a tight game, but in a near must win for Miami (while a Denver loss keeps them tied for first atop the AFC West with Kansas City) the Dolphins might pull off the win, suggesting they’ve  “arrived.”

Or they might not have really arrived yet and Denver, after a disastrous loss at St. Louis, might get it together and beat them solidly.  Who knows.  The Oakland Pick and several from last week were, again, easier than this one.  But it’s another truly great football match-up this NFL football Sunday

Pick: Broncos

Cleveland (+3) at Atlanta

Another tough game, and while maybe not as great as some of the others, another good one.

Cleveland is one of four teams in the AFC North to be over.500. While the Falcons, at 4-6, are in a tie with the Saints for 1st place in the NFC South. (Technically, they’re in first place right now, since they beat the Saints heads up; but they still have to play them again.)

The Browns have been without their key tight end Jordan Cameron for three games now, and it looks like it’s going to be a 4th.  They do finally get a guy back who may have been the best receiver in the NFL last season – Josh Gordon. But what kind of football shape is he in? And atop a few other injuries they’ve now lost former 1st round pick defensive tackle Phil Taylor for the season.

Taylor had missed a month before returning last week. But his absence is still a key loss. And the Falcons, until last year perennially very strong under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, have been playing strong of late. And would have even crept up to 5-5 if they Lions hadn’t pulled off a 20 point come from behind over where the natives speak with an English accent, en route to a last moment 21-20 win several weeks ago.  They might well be a better team than the Browns at this point. And they tend to be a very good home team.

And, the fact they are coming off a key, close win against their rivals the Panthers (who usually play them tough) last week probably doesn’t mean too much for this team, – which has repeatedly exhibited it knows how to focus during the season. But the Browns, coming off a solid loss at home to the Houston Texans last week, might be riled.

Still, the 3 points is likely not of much worth here. And a pick for the Browns is close to saying they are going to, or are 50 – 50 or near it, to pull off the upset. This might a “root for the long time underdog” kind of pick. But coming out of a touch division, between two teams that probably have heart, we’re going here with the true underdog in this game, who will need to play with even more heart to pull off that upset.

This might be the worst pick of the week, but,

Pick: Browns

Week 10 NFL Picks Against the Spread Includes Some Whoppers

A minimally frustrating moment for the humble proprietor of this humble little blog, last week finishing up a bit disappointing 3-3, after a poor (but in hindsight ironic) record the week before, and a pretty decent week 7 – the first week these picks started. Continue reading