Tipping Pitches: Sports: Super Bowl XLIV a Victory for Play Calling


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sports: Super Bowl XLIV a Victory for Play Calling

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Super Bowl XLIV was a victory for aggressive play calling.

Maybe, just maybe, we're a step closer to never again hearing the following argument: "Because you just don't do that!"

I feared that after Bill Belichick's failed fourth down play against the Colts earlier this season that we were in store for an increasingly conservative National Football League. Then the Saints won the Super Bowl.

Thank you.

With just under two minutes left to play in the first half at the Colts' one yard line, Sean Payton and the Saints decided to go for it on fourth down rather than kicking the field goal.

Phil Simms summed up the feelings of the millions of NFL purists when he said something to the effect of, "You just put points on the board."

That's the problem with the "purist" opinion of football fans. There are no statistics or probability involved. You just do things because "that's how you do it."

The problem was, though, that Sean Payton wasn't faced with the choice of seven points or three points. It was a much more complicated decision.

If He Goes for It
If Sean Payton goes for it and is successful, the game is tied. The Colts still have just under two minutes left in the half, and will likely start around their 25 yard line. They will be aggressive. Knowing that offense, no one would bet against them scoring at least three points there.

If Sean Payton goes for it and fails, the Colts have the ball at their own one yard line with under two minutes remaining. Standard here is to run out the clock -- or as much of the clock as you can. You don't want to turn the ball over. First down is important, but throwing an incompletion is a risk that is staring you in the face.

Because of this, Payton knows that he has a reasonably good chance of getting the ball back -- and in very good field position -- before the half ends, even if he fails to convert on fourth down. In fact, they even have the chance of getting a safety.

While going for it successfully was the preferred result, failing wasn't necessarily bad either. He knew he had a good chance of getting the ball back since failing would put the Colts in a position to be conservative.

If He Kicks
If Sean Payton decides to kick, it's more or less a foregone conclusion that they get three points there. However, once again the Colts would get the ball at or around their own 25 yard line with just under two minutes remaining. The Colts would be aggressive, unlike the situation with the ball at their one. After giving up points and having better field position, they would not be conservative. The odds of them scoring would be relatively good.

I love the call. It shows that a coach's decision is complex, and not what is immediately in front of him. The end result, in particular, validates the decision. The Saints failed to convert, but whether or not it was the right call could not yet be determined (despite what the pundits may have said at that point). The Colts were stopped on three downs, the Saints got the ball back in great field position (expected as such if they stopped them), and drove enough yardage to kick a field goal.

In the end, isn't this the second best result for the Saints? If they go for it and get the touchdown, the Colts may or may not score again. But a touchdown from the Colts wasn't likely (though not impossible).

By going for it and failing, it set up the least possible scenario for the Colts to score. And set up a pretty good chance for them to get their three points as time expired.

Obviously, the preferred result is to go for it and succeed. But by keeping an aggressive Peyton Manning off of the field and still getting three points on the board, failing was nearly just as good.

The Onside Kick
The onside kick to start the second half by the Saints was brilliant. But you know what? It's only brilliant because coaches have no guts.

If aggressive play calling becomes more popular than conservative play calling, that becomes a bad play. It only works because it was a surprise.

After the kick, Trey Wingo tweeted that the greatness of Peyton Manning forced Sean Payton to make that call. I disagree. It is the accepted conservative play calling in the NFL that makes this play possible. No one wants to risk giving Peyton Manning the ball to start the half at their own 40 yard line. But because it was so unexpected, it became a high percentage play (accepted by the purists or not).

Definition of "Purist"
As I write this, it's striking to me the difference between fan "purity" in baseball and football. You're a baseball purist because you are infatuated with statistics. It's the purists who are so offended by the Steroid Era and the way drugs have manipulated records.

Yet, NFL purists seem to have little care about statistics or percentages. Every argument revolves around a common set of words: "That's just the way it's done." You don't go for it on fourth down, barring a very strict set of circumstances, because "that's just the way it's done." You certainly don't start the second half with an onside kick.

Aggressive Play Calling Wins
While I may have been rooting for the Saints to win this game, I really didn't care much one way or the other. I am a Packers fan and pull for the underdog.

But, I am so happy today for those who like "aggressive" play calling in the NFL. I use quotation marks because it's only seen as aggressive when compared to the norm. In reality, it's just going with percentages and understanding what is and isn't expected in that situation.

This is a win for us. There were three very aggressive play calls in this game (fourth and goal by the Saints, fourth and two by the Colts in the second half, and the onside kick). Only the fourth and goal wasn't fully successful. Yet, even that play inevitably worked in the Saints' favor.

Bill Belichick's call in 2009 will be long remembered, but for all the wrong reasons. It seemed incredibly risky, but only because it's a call that no one makes (and for all the wrong reasons). In reality, it was no worse than a 50/50 proposition.

Sean Payton proved all season long that you can win by going against conventional wisdom. You can win more than just a few games. You can win your conference and beat the team that everyone thinks is the league's greatest (and one that plays it "by the book") on the biggest stage.

I was impressed with Sean Payton today because he stuck with what got him to this game. He didn't suddenly get conservative with the spotlight on him. He didn't freeze. Even when his first risky call "failed" he continued to challenge conventional play calling.

And for that reason, the Saints' victory today was a win for more than just New Orleans. It was a win for aggressive play calling. The loser? Grandpas without logical arguments.


rachel said...

I agreed with Payton's call to go for it on 4th down. I think the Saints thrive off of calls like that. (I still don't agree with Belichick's decision, though.)

I think the onside call was brilliant because they got the ball. If it hadn't have worked out for them, I still would've liked the call but without using the word brilliant.

Jon Loomer on February 07, 2010 said...

The key for me is that outside of the onside kick, Payton didn't surprise me. I expected him to go for it on fourth down. I expected him to go for two points instead of go up by six with five minutes left. Neither call was automatic among today's coaches.

I support Belichick's call, but not because it was obviously right. I support it because it was at least 50/50. There isn't a necessarily right or wrong answer on that call. But since no one does it, it seems obviously wrong. It's not.

I agree on the onside, but again I think it was a higher percentage play than most people think because it was unexpected. I'd like to see the numbers on this. Onside kicks may not be high percentage typically, but I'd be willing to bet we're talking a 70% success rate when it is in an unexpected situation. But you're right. We do look at it differently if it fails. Even I do.

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