Predictions: 2015 NFL Season Division Winners

As everyone who pays any attention to football knows, and many who don’t probably know as well, another NFL football season is upon us.

At the same time, federal judge after judge in NFLPA actions continues to rule that despite extremely wide latitude under the CBA, commissioner Roger Goodell continues to violate it by “arbitrary” actions and decisions that represent an “abuse of discretion.”

Federal Judge David Doty, in a statement dripping with sarcasm, even wondered aloud in Federal Court recently: “I’m not sure the Commissioner understands there is a CBA.

Some, in process, have likened Goodell’s actions to overzealous politicians who believe “national security” allows or even demands they take those actions they support, U.S. Constitution, and government rules of process and inviolate rights be damned.

While far more trivial, Roger Goodell’s pattern of response for “conduct detrimental” to the league is similar. However, many of the 32 NFL owners apparently don’t view a commissioner who, federal judges continue to rule. acts in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner – dispensing his “own brand of industrial justice,” as New York Federal Judge Richard Berman most recently said in the “DeflateGate” matter – as somewhat detrimental to the integrity of the league.

But enough of that. Let’s turn to far better controversy; one that will be resolved by regular season end, and that we get to watch unfold each Sunday in the process – beginning with tomorrow, the first Sunday of the regular 2015 NFL season, and the day some consider the main opening day to the season.

So, here are your division winners for each of the 8 NFL divisions, as well as second, third and last teams for each division. Wild card contenders for each conference are then also listed, in predicted order of success – with the first two teams on each list the projected wild card winners.(Though done in comparison to a very questionable earlier Harvard Study, and for purposes of fairness thus didn’t take into account pre season action or injuries in its actual percentage ratings, these three pieces assess some of the key variables affecting each of the 32 NFL teams’ chances.)

American Football Conference (AFC)
East

  1. Buffalo Bills
  2. New England Patriots
  3. Miami Dolphins
  4. New York Jets

North

  1. Cincinnati Bengals
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Baltimore Ravens
  4. Cleveland Browns

South

  1. Indianapolis Colts
  2. Houston Texans
  3. Tennessee Titans
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars

West

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Denver Broncos
  3. San Diego Charger
  4. Oakland Raiders

AFC Wild Cards
1. New England Patriots. 2. Houston Texans. 3. Denver Broncos. 4. Miami Dolphins. 5. Pittsburgh Steelers.

*Notes: The Patriots are also likely to take the AFC East, and the Broncos and Texans could easily be fllip flopped. QB Peyton Manning carries teams, and even at 39, with what might be a good defense, Denver could be a great team again and even beat out the Chiefs for the division. Miami and Pittsburgh could also both obviously move up, or win their respective divisions, as the East, North, and West should be particularly interesting this season. Regarding prior poor teams, Oakland might greatly improve, while Tennessee could show significant, if not as much improvement as well. The Jets are expected to improve as well, and might help make that NFC East a tough division this year.

It also feels a little uncomfortable to completely leave out a team that has more playoff wins than any other in the NFL since their QB and head coach joined them in 2008, and who last year was solidly beating the ultimate Super Bowl champion Patriots in the Conference Semi Finals before losing a very close game at the end on a rare Joe Flacco playoff interception.

But some teams have to be left out. And just as other teams could do better than expected from last season and before, some could do worse. Needless to say, the Ravens and Bengals could also be flip flopped here. And if that happens and the Ravens do get into the playoffs – as they’ve proven before (and much like the Giants, who they also happened to defeat back in their first Super Bowl appearance in January, 2001), anything can happen.

Championship game: Colts v Chiefs

National Football Conference (NFC)
East

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Philadelphia Eagles
  3. New York Giants
  4. Washington Redskins

North

  1. Detroit Lions
  2. Green Bay Packers
  3. MInnesota Vikings
  4. Chicago Bears

South

  1. Carolina Panthers
  2. New Orleans Saints
  3. Atlanta Falcons
  4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

West

  1. St. Louis Rams
  2. Seattle Seahawks
  3. Arizona Cardinals
  4. San Francisco 49ers

NFC Wild Cards
1. Philadelphia Eagles. 2. Seattle Seahawks. 3. Green Bay Packers. 4. Minnesota Vikings. 5. Arizona Cardinals.

*Notes: Minnesota and Green Bay, in even more of a surprise, could flip flop, and the Giants could also make it into the playoffs as a wild card. Big improvement would be needed in the South to send a wild card (although the NFC South had a particularly hard schedule last year, and has an easier one this go round); but the Saints are a possibility if some of the other teams don’t improve as projected here.

The Falcons could always also rebound back in their stead or even in place of the Panthers, who to take the division again do need to play as a cohesive team from day one, and with possibly the key piece from his otherwise weak offense missing, QB Can Newton needs to play at a fairly high consistent level.

Championship game: Cowboys v Eagles

Super Bowl: Cowboys v Colts

It’s too easy to just predict the best teams from last year plus obvious offseason additions, and every year there are some surprises that wind up completely changing expectations from what they were earlier in the season. This set of predictions tries to capture at least some of that.

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Popular Harvard Sports Analytic Collective Study of NFL Playoff Possibilities Misses the Odds

Near the beginning of preseason, a Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

The study reached numbers that appear to carry the credibility of tested data and analysis. Because of this, along with the school name and the study’s use of assessments from Pro Football Reference and statistical behemoth FiveThirtyEight, it garnered a lot of attention.

Unfortunately, many of its numbers are heavily flawed. (I’ve compared them in here with better playoff chances in part I-covering teams 1-10; II-covering teams 11-20; and III-covering teams 21-32, and will look at both during the course of the season and run a comparison at season end. Anything can happen, but barring a statistical aberration, the Harvard Collective’s study numbers will fare worse.)

The HSAC study made several compounding assumptions. And not only did this lead to some results that may not represent the best assessment of that team’s actual playoff chances, it also led to some statistically questionable, and even unsupportable ones.

For instance, it pegged the Seahawks at a ridiculous 99% to make the playoffs. (The Seahawks were originally 95% to make the playoffs – still too high. But apparently to normalize outcomes so an average of six teams from each conference would make it into the postseason each year, their number was adjusted upward.) There’s far too much variability, uncertainty, as well as general parity in the NFL for any team to have a 99 out of 100 chance to make the playoffs, before the season even begins.

The HSAC study also pegged the Titans at 2% to make the playoffs, and originally the Ravens at 9%. Both of these are also unrealistic given basic NFL variance in the case of the Titans; and in the case of the Ravens, also given the fact they have made the playoffs 6 out of the last 7 seasons, and have more playoff wins than any team in the entire NFL since 2008; the year quarterback Joe Flacco entered the league and John Harbaugh became their head coach.

And it pegged the Raiders at a ridiculous, almost ludicrously low .003 (.3%) – that’s 3 out of 1000 times – chance of making the playoffs.

Along with a few other probabilities that push the boundaries of statistical reasonableness, and several others that probably don’t represent particularly great assessments, the study also pegged the Miami Dolphins as having the highest chances of making the playoffs out of the entire AFC.

That’s not a totally wacky pick. Miami was one of my dark horse teams to take the next step this year; as it was for several other people. But it still seems a little odd that since this study has come out, Miami is now often thrown into the mix of AFC, and even possible Super Bowl contenders.

There’s a good chance this is simply a coincidence. After all, Miami as a dark horse team (among several) was not a novel idea. They have some good players, a potentially excellent quarterback, and showed occassional signs the last two years of being able to play at a near elite team level. (Albeit several teams have. For instance, watch out for the Chiefs this year as much as if not more than the Dolphins. Another AFC dark horse that may surprise, if that defense really pulls together and QB Hoyer throws as accurately as he did the first half of last season and not the second half, is Houston. The Bills are also at least on par with Miami, and probably more likely to make the playoffs.)

But it could also be that a reasonably well publicized Harvard study floating around out there, that pegged Miami as the top team in the AFC, also didn’t hurt – no matter how goofy some of its numbers upon closer analysis.

And some of its numbers, as suggested above, are goofy. For instance, pegging the Seahawks at 99% to make the playoffs defies football reality, and at least relative NFL parity and uncertainty.

One of the only ways to really show this point is for the Seahawks to miss the postseason. (Though it wouldn’t technically prove that the “99%” probability was wrong, since, though a long shot, such an outcome could still just be a “1 in 100” fluke, it would certaintly help suggest it.)

But the problem is the Seahawks are likely to make the postseason.They’re just not “99 out of 100 times” likely to make the playoffs. And no team in modern NFL history has been. Ever.
_______

Essentially, the HSAC study used a multiple step interpretive statistics process to come up with a methodology that appears sound, but isn’t.

The study used Pro Football Reference’s approximate value statistics for players, then assessed team strength by relying on them for “core players.” But the valuations are still subjective. And more importantly, football is a team game, not a core player game.

The model results were also “tested” by running last year’s data, and comparing it to last year’s end of season FiveThirtyEight ELO ratings. But reasonable correlation with these ratings doesn’t imply the probabilities are robust; just that they may be more accurate than merely throwing darts at a random board of probability numbers.

The ELO assessments also reflect a limiting system of assumptions as well – one that tries to arrive at the “better team” in terms of overall performance, including in large part how much a team wins games by, etc. But this also doesn’t mean correlation with the highest chances of making the playoffs – just again, something superior to throwing darts at a board.

First off, some teams know how to protect leads; others how to do so and pull out close games when behind; still others manage to stay tight and lose but can win by blowouts, etc. (And even if to some extent these things can factor in to win totals, it gets heavily skewed by score differentials, what team was coming off of what games, and most importantly what actually happened in each game.)  And it doesn’t take into account the odds that particular team faces – the makeup of their division, what other divisions they have to play, etc.

So rather than test the model compared to last season’s rankings, as noted above we’ll compare its probabilities to how the season actually works out for the 32 team’s ranked, as well as how it does in comparison to the non statistical generic evaluation of each team’s playoff possibilities assesed here. My prediction is that the Harvard study, although it got a lot more publicity, is going to show worse results than the assessments made here in parts I II, and III.

In addition to the fact that grading core players rather than the full team is incomplete, and that player grades, even for all players, is still not necessarily equal to a team grade, part of the study’s flaws is that grading players relative to each other in terms of win probability is also very difficult. If one player is a 10 and another is an 8 (just for a scale of comparison), what does that mean?

Is the difference between 10 and 8 that big of a gap that surrounding “non core” players, coaching ability – beyond its small reflection in that team’s player ranking to begin with – overall team chemistry, cohesion, or heart, don’t matter as much?

Of course if we can assess the general quality of multiple key positions, statistically at least we can at least get a feel for the team. (And in many of the skill positions particularly, the study’s overall ranking, even if unintentionally, will be affected by the overall quality of a team, with receivers with great quarterbacks and solid offensive lines and great offensive coordinators getting higher ratings, for instance, than if they had played their last several years on a different team, etc.)

But that’s all the study really does. Which around the middle of the pack is enough to put forth numbers that aren’t consistently outlandish, but not at the high, and in particular low, ends.

Think what you will of the Rams, for instance, but assessing them as having only a 1 in 10 chance of making the playoffs, before the season even starts, and with an upgrade at quarterback; another year for their many young players; an improving team; a good head coach; and when 12 of 32 teams reach the playoffs, is just not realistic.

For this same reason, almost all of the low end, and particularly the very low end numbers, are not just too low, but become increasingly preposterous, no matter how bad seeming the teams. Even Tennessee, and even Oakland.

And, frankly, who knows. either could be a decent team this year. (with Oakland probably having a slightly better chance, although they’re in a tougher division and face a tougher outside the division schedule, which will hurt them in the getting to the playoffs sweepstakes.).

Also notice Oakland’s pattern last year after beating the Chiefs to bolt their record up to a whopping 1-10 in week 12. They took it light – obviously – and got pounded 52-0 by the Rams, then pulled it together and back at home surprised again, legitimately beating the still tough 49ers – and doing so as large underdogs – 24-13, before then, same pattern, getting pounded yet again, and this time by the Chiefs in a rematch in Kansas City, 31-13. Then guess what. Same pattern still: They won again, and again against a good team. That is, by late last season the Bills were a very good football team, and probably taking the Raiders lightly, and on a cross country trip fell to those same Raiders 26-24. And yet after pulling out that win, Oakland continued its pattern as well, getting pounded by Denver in a season ending game, 47-14.

Again, we’ll examine the outcomes at the end of the season, but it will be very surprising if the Harvard numbers don’t fare much worse overall than the numbers given here. In the meantime, again, two sets of playoff odds for all teams in the NFL, one by the Harvard Sports Collective study, and one by this site along with some of the key reasons for the numbers given, are set forth in parts I, II, and III.

Harvard Sports Analysis Collective’s Crazy “Predictions,” and a Little Bit More

(Updated and edited, 8-9-15)

In response to this Harvard SAC study projecting the probability of each NFL team making the playoffs this season, in reply here, I posted the following comment.

Or tried, as it wouldn’t post. Instead, bizarrely-but perhaps appropriately for a study that gives the Dolphins more than a 700% greater chance of making the playoffs than the Ravens-something else happened.

Remember, it’s just a comment, and unedited. (Also, note the study predicted a Seahawks-Dolphins Super Bowl, which is how I made the “second highest playoff chance” error. The Packers were given the second highest playoff chances. The Dolphins were third; but highest in the AFC.) Here it is:

Of course he’s not predicting who will make the playoffs. That’s what “X” chances by definition means. But all of the issues raised equally apply to the percentage chances concluded, if not more so.

The fact that it’s “data” that was used does not mean that the inherent assumptions that go into choosing which data and how to weigh it, nor the decisional and necessary omissions, yields a good result or even reasonable result.

And these results are not good.

Of course there is no way to “prove” that. Nor does the Titans, for example failing to make the playoffs – as they probably will – nor the Seahawks making the playoffs – as they probably will – mean that the probabilities of 2% and 95% respectively, represent reasonable estimations (so far as they exist in terms of something no one can know) rather than not. (And vice versa.)

There are numerous glaring flaws in the conclusions, regardless of how arrived at and regardless of the fact that data was used, so picking out any is almost pointless. But one of the ones raised above is a good one – the Falcons are an unknown with a new coach and some mid level changes. Yes they’re in a bad division, but the idea that the Ravens are just under 1 in 10 to make the playoffs and the Falcons 50-50 borders on the ridiculous. (And for the same reasons given above would remain so even if Atlanta DOES make the playoffs, and Baltimore does not.)

I kind of like the dark horse Dolphins pick, but giving them the second highest chance of making the playoffs is also ridiculous.

Interesting study though, and fun to consider. It will also be interesting to look back upon as the season unfolds.

End Comment.

But it was tagged as spam. And from a filter that may have made a mistake, instead of an apology or something neutral in case it had (and not only was the comment obviously not spam, I hadn’t even commented on the site before, or if I had it was minimal, and quite some time ago), appeared this:

ERROR: Your comment appears to be spam. We don’t really appreciate spam here.

Since apparently a minor insult just isn’t enough, and regardless of the fact that filters can not only catch things that aren’t spam but also wind up wasting the commenter’s time as a result, the above reply was followed by:

“Go back and post something useful.”

This treats the comment and auto response not as assumption, but instead a conclusion, with nothing but a robotic error riddled program driving it (somewhat like the subject “prediction” study of the article itself, ironically enough), that the attempted comment is – not may be – spam. And, for good measure, adds a double if mild veiled insult: “We really don’t appreciate spam. Now go post something useful.”

That’s a big leap. Not knowing the difference, or being unwilling to recognize it, between presumption and fact is a pretty big mistake for any college. But then Harvard is, after all, considered one of the very worst in the land, so perhaps it’s understandable.

A small irony is I almost went to Harvard and wrestled there, and as things turn out, in probably the first big mistake of my life, did not. I still regret the decision, even if this HSAC study, interesting nature of it aside, and it’s “Hal” like spam machinery, seems to botch some things.

After Seattle beats the Dolphins in a close Super Bowl in February 2016 (yeah, right), I’ll stand corrected. But seriously, these are, of course, probability assessments, which is why they aren’t only hard to assess before the fact, they’re almost as hard to assess afterward. (For example, what ultimately happens in each team’s case doesn’t prove whether the initial probability assessment was right, mildly flawed, or awful.)

…That is, unless the general set of projected probabilities, lined up against actual season outcomes and divergence away from expectation, is either stunning good or stunningly bad. Which we may well see turn out to be the case with respect to this study. (See below.)

Still. I wrote a detailed piece a few weeks into last season illustrating why the “2%” Titans coaching switch from Mike Munchak to Ken Whisenhunt was a bad move, and the team proceeded to (still surprisingly) remain horrible throughout the entire year: Losing 9 games out of their 14 total losses, by at least 14 points or more.

But the Titans have some solid players, and the NFL has a lot of variance as well as some general unpredictability, and the team could jell.

We also got a little spoiled on QBs coming into the league as rookies and doing fairly well the last few years, and it’s still kind of a long shot. (And I argued the Titans, in need of a QB or not, should have taken advantage of their fortuitous number two pick and traded it away to deeply build the team.) But Marcus Mariota might deliver, and, who knows, they might just surprise enough to make the playoffs.

Long shot, but “it sure ain’t as low as a one in fiddy chance.” The NFL is too unpredictable. And, Colts aside, the AFC South is a relatively weak division. Not only that, this year the AFC South plays the AFC East, which while it’s expected to be better, wasn’t a total powerhouse last year.

And it plays the division many call the worst in football (though I think the AFC South, with possibly the two worst teams in football last year, night have qualified) – the NFC South. Whisenhunt also had a losing record before joining the team, but it wasn’t dramatically under .500; and courtesy of Kurt Warner, Anquan, and Fitz, did take his team to a Super Bowl.

Within the next several days I’ll post some season probability odds right alongside the SA Collective predictions; based on general team assessment, and zero modeling. (Update: teams 1-10, 11-20, 21-32 – some of Harvard’s numbers are already looking ridiculous – and why the study’s no good, here.) It’ll be interesting later to compare how each team ultimately winds up at the end of the season – record and proxmity to playoffs wise – in comparison with their projected probability chances under the HSAC study, versus the chances to be shortly posted here.

Harvard, game on. To bad there isn’t an easy way to do this objectively, and we could put a fun embarassing wager on it; something like if the backers of the study lose they have to run twice around Harvard Square naked (and sober) with “Yale Rocks!” painted on their chest during class sessions or something.

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

The 2015 NFL Draft and the Blockbuster Trade That Wasn’t

Despite great anticipation, no blockbuster trade ups to grab a top 5 pick in the 2105 NFL draft were ever announced. Continue reading

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.