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Talk Dirty to Me - The Power of Hyper-Aggressive Coaching (and How Stats Can Make Josh McDaniels Even Dirtier)

You know I never
I never seen you look so good
You never call the plays you should
But I like it
And I know you like it too.....

If you're ever in a jam for awesomely-bad 80s music, so bad that it's actually good, you don't have to look much farther than the band Poison.  This little ditty, Talk Dirty To Me, is classic lipstick metal, so shallow that it's profound. So non-existential, it's almost existential.  And it's a lesson for NFL coaches.

Be aggressive.  Don't play it safe.   Wear eye liner.

Well perhaps the third is optional (unless your the new Al Davis hire).  But the first two should be requirements for all NFL coaches.

If you didn't get the memo, you may have figured out that Josh McDaniels coaches with some emotion.  The fist pumps after beating the Patriots in week 5, the we're-just-trying-to-win-a-bleeping-game-here rant in week 12, and the hugging of The Beast in week 4.

There are a lot of people that would classify this sort of emotional behavior as less-than mature for an NFL coach. A coach needs to ooze calm and cool and control at all times.  Others say football is an emotional game and coaches are a natural extension of this emotion.  In fact, they contend, in a era of scripted press conferences, we need more emotion, not less.

I'll leave the hordes on both sides to continue this epic debate.  Because it's really not important.  For every Tony Dungy, there's a Bill Cowher.  So the fact that Josh McDaniels is an emotional guy doesn't bother me in the least. What I do think he can improve on, however, and what Broncos fans deserve to see more of from Josh McDaniels in 2010, is to take this aggressive nature, this raw emotion, this let's-step-on-their-throat-and-groin-at-the-same-time passion, and channel that into a style of play calling that goes for the jugular.

Just what do I mean?  Get down to the basement, lock the cellar door, and join me after the jump for some statistical-dirty talk.

Week 15 - At the Drive In, In the Old Man's Ford

On December 20th, 2009, it was an especially nice day in Denver, Colorado.  It was almost sixty degrees, sunny, and there was just a slight breeze in the air.  A nice day for football; an exquisite day for a massacre.  For on that day, the Denver Broncos were facing the absolute bottom of the food chain in the NFL--the putrid and bacteria-like Oakland Raiders.

The Broncos, once beneficiaries of a 6-0 start, had reeled recently, and had dropped 4 straight games.  However, their playoff swagger had returned.  In the three previous weeks leading up to that Sunday, they had outplayed a good (at the time) New York Giants club, had decimated their division rival, the Kansas City Chiefs, and had just the week before, almost pulled off a come-from-behind win against Peyton Manning and the Colts on the road. In short, they were ready to bring Al Davis to slaughter for the 2nd time in 2009.

The Broncos entered the game with and 8-5 record.  Win on that Sunday and a playoff-berth was a virtual lock. Lose, and teams like the New York Jets would begin thinking they had hope.  It was the perfect Sunday for complete and utter rage.

In typical fashion, the sluggish Raiders went three-and-out on their first drive of the game.  Denver started their drive at their own 35-yard line.  And a few minutes later, after some nice runs by Knowshon Moreno and a clutch 3rd-down catch by Eddie Royal, the Broncos found themselves with a 1st-and-10 at the Oakland 13-yard line.  A run by LaMont Jordan (who?) got them to the Oakland 7-yard line.  But after a two poorly executed plays (an Orton scramble and a Moreno run), Denver found themselves looking at a 4th-and-2 at the Oakland 5-yard line.

And here we shall stop our narrative for a moment ask ourselves,  "What, in the name of Bret Michaels, should the Broncos have done next?"  Kick the field goal?  Go for it?  Call Bill Belichick?  

Our gut presents us with two choices.  The first is to take the traditional approach, take the points, and put your team up 3-0.  Perhaps the field goal gives the team a little boost of confidence and sets the stage for the next drive.  Either way, 3 points is better than nothing, right?

The other choice is also alluring, however, like the sight of a Broncos cheeleader.  Go for it, move your chips to the center of the table, and try and get 7 points.  And if you don't get 7, put the Raiders into a deeper hole (than they were otherwise born into), right up against their own goal line, and let loose the hounds of Dumervil.  No matter what, you've sent a message to Tom "Cooney" Cable that you're no Randy Hanson on this day.  If you are going to beat the Broncos, you are going to have to bring it.  All. Day.   (Howie) Long.

We all know the choice McDaniels made.  He took the conservative approach.  The Broncos went up 3-0.

And all of Broncos Nation knew Denver was in for a dogfight with a 4-9 team.

Later, when the Raiders scored a touchdown in the 2nd quarter to go up 7-6, whatever momentum the Broncos thought they had seized evaporated like orange-and-blue Kool-Aid on a Sunday afternoon.

The eventual score, 20-19, is an afterthought now.  We know that the sun even shines on a dog's butt every once and again.  On that particular Sunday, JaMarcus Russell barked loudly.

But it didn't need to be that way.  McDaniels should have gone for it.  And perhaps--just perhaps--the playoffs would have been a reality.   A look at the numbers will show you why.

Stats - Behind the Bushes, Screamin' For More, More, More!

By now, those of you that have read anything written by me, know I am a huge proponent of the use of expected points value (EPV).  Every down-and-distance on the field has an expected points value, whether it be for the offense or for the defense.  It's the average, over the long term, of the number of points that are scored next.  As you can imagine, if you are backed up against your goal line, the EPV is negative for your offense--due of the fact that it's more likely the next team to score is going to be your opponent.  Conversely, if you are sitting at your opponent's 2-yard line, your EPV is very high.

I became obsessed with EPV after reading the book Mathletics by Professor Wayne Winston, which I recommend to anyone who wants to understand the NFL, MLB, or the NBA at a very serious statistical level.  Not only does the use of EPV help us put a points value on any given play, it can be used to help coaches like Josh McDaniels make better decisions.  In this case, use of EPV--along with a little probability--in my extremely humble and abiding opinion, should have led him to go for it on the 4th-and-2 situation at the beginning of the game.

Let's start with a few assumptions and some context regarding the situation McDaniels was facing.  First, the Broncos had the ball on the Oakland 5-yard line.  It was 4th-and-2.  If the Broncos were to go for it and gain 2 yards, they would have been looking at a 1st-and-goal at the Raider 3-yard line.  The expected value of this down and distance is 6.078 points.  In other words, over the long run, at this down and distance, the offense averages this amount of points.  On the other hand, if the Broncos only gained, let's say, 1 yard, the Raiders would have gotten the ball back and they would have faced a 1st-and10 at their own 4 yard line.  The expected value of this down and distance is -1.425, or 1.425 to us, since our opponent's negative expected values are our positive values.  With me so far?  Good, you're already qualified to explain the salary cap to Al Davis.

On the other hand, let's say we decided to kick a field goal from this same distance, taking the approach Josh McDaniels took.  The expected value of kicking the field goal would average out to be about 2.734.  Remember, when a team kicks a field goal, they really don't realize a full 3 points of expected value because we subtract their opponent's expected points value on the next play, which is the kickoff return.  Since the average kickoff return is returned to the 27-yard line, we generally standardize the expected points value of a field goal at 2.734.

So the expected value of making that field goal would be 2.734.  If, on the other hand, we missed this field goal, the Raiders would again take over, probably at around their own 12-yard line, facing of course a 1st-and-10.  The expected value of this down and distance is -.798, or for the Broncos .798.   Still with me?  Excellent.

Here we mix in some probability.  I won't torture you with the equation (I'll put that in the notes at the end of the column), but just remember we are facing two sets of alternatives:

  • Go for it and face one of the alternative EPV values under that set of circumstances (6.078 or 1.425 points); or
  • Kick the field goal and face one of the alternative EPV values under that set of circumstances (2.734 or .798)

We also know that making a field goal from that down and distance has an approximate probability of 99%.  From here we can, through a relatively simple probability equation, deduce that if Josh McDaniels thought that he had a 27% chance or greater of making that 4th-and-2, he should have gone for it.  Given the that the general success rate for NFL teams on 4th-and-2 is over 40%, one would have to say he made the wrong call.

Let me put it more simply:  If McDaniels  thought he could have made that 4th down on ONLY 3 times out of 10, he should have gone for it.  Statistically, over the long run, it would have been the right call, although I'm guessing he's not keeping a computer in his back pocket (sounds like an idea to me).

Going For It - Pick Up That Guitar and Talk to Me

So why didn't McDaniels go for it?  And why don't more coaches go for it more often when facing 4th-and-short in the face of their opponent's goal, when statistically, it's a much better option to go for 7 points?   In the groundbreaking book The Hidden Game of Football, written in 1988 (the last time the Raiders had a good draft), authors Bob Carrol, Peter Palmer, and John Thorn offer up an explanation that I found both interesting and amusing:

"The idea that you-gotta-come-away with something is on page six of The Coach's Book of Conventional Wisdom, which every coach receives along with his first whistle on a lanyard.  It's in red ink.  Underneath, it's explained that any team that gets close to the goal line and doesn't come away with a point or so will undergo a psychic shock roughly akin to being weaned.  

So he ignores his offense, which has been doing a good job, ignores the fact that even the best field goal in the world is still worth less than half a touchdown, ignores the fact that the following kickoff will give the opponent halfway decent field position, and sends in his kicker.  So for a few minutes, he has a 3-point lead...

....the irony of the whole thing is that the better a kicker a coach has in his arsenal, the quicker he'll call for a field goal in a short yardage situation.  So in effect, a great kicker can actually cost his team points."

(pages: 152, 158)

And you wondered why the Raiders just shelled out a lot of cash on Sebastian Janikowski?  Well, we knew it all along.

But there is still yet another explanation that I find even more compelling.  From a job security standpoint, it's simply safer.  As Al Saunders, former offensive coordinator for the Saint Louis Rams, points out:

"Coaches would rather feel as though they subconsciously play not to lose. They don't want to do something out of the ordinary to lose. It's easier to do what's expected and safe."

And Saunders is right.  Remember earlier in the year when Bill Belichick got crucified for his decision to go for it on 4th-and-short in his own territory against the Colts late in the game?  Lucky for Belichick he is considered a genius, he has unlimited job security, and study after study backed up his decision.  So he could withstand all the silly attacks from journalists like Pete Drisco, who wrote of Belichick's decision, "each and every week we see bad coaching decisions in the NFL, but never, and I mean never, have I seen one as dumb as the decision (Belichick) made Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts. His brain was more frozen than Ted Williams."

Now, imagine a first-year coach like Josh McDaniels making a decision--although correct--like the one that Belichick made. Woody Paige and Mark Kizsla would ignore the statistics, they would ignore the studies like the one by David Romer, an economist at the University of California, who showed that football teams are far too conservative on fourth down, and they would have a field day.  Instead of focusing on poor play, they would focus on Josh McDaniels.

Perhaps coaches are simply operating like managers do in business, as Shankar Vedantam suggests in this article from the Washington Post in 2007, which references Romer and his study:

"Why do coaches persist in doing something that is less than optimal, when they say their only goal is to win? One theory that Romer has heard is that coaches -- like generals, stock fund directors and managers in general -- actually have different goals than the people they lead and the people they must answer to. Everyone wants to win, but managers are held to different standards than followers when they lose, especially when they lose after trying something that few others are doing."

In short, few coaches have the job security and cojones to focus exclusively on outcomes.  Or as Brian Burke writes at Advanced NFL Statistics, "people tend to fear a loss more than they value an equivalent gain...people naturally tend to exaggerate the consequences of a loss, and this favors the conservative decision."

Things could be slowly changing, however.  During this year's Super Bowl, Sean Payton boldly went for a touchdown on 4th-and-goal against the Colts, and although he didn't get the score, the statistics held true, his team got the ball back in good field position, and the team scored anyway.  The journalists hailed him the next day as a genius for the move.  And there are more coaches at the high school level who are now beginning to use statistics to their advantage.  Consider Kevin Kelley, head coach of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas who was featured in Sport Illustrated in September of 2009 for his own interesting strategy (based on statistical research).  He never punts, kicks field goals, or kicks extra points.

Which brings us back to Josh McDaniels.  We know he's a stats guy.  We know he does statistical research.  I'm sure that he's quite aware what the correct decision was.  Unless, could it be, that he didn't think the Broncos had more than a 27% chance of converting?  If that's the case, the Broncos had a much more decrepit offense than we even imagined.

But I'm not buying it. And neither should you.   Flat out, McDaniels made a mistake.  And I'm betting he knows it.  While it's impossible to say that going for it on 4th down in week 15 against the Raiders would have helped win the game and spurred the Broncos to the playoffs, we can be sure of one thing: McDaniels played it safe and they lost.

Let's hope in 2010 we see a more aggressive Josh McDaniels.  Without eye liner, of course.  The Raiders fans are going to need it anyway.


Note to Stats-Geeks: I used a probability equation to solve for the percentage chance of success of McDaniels going for it on 4th-and-2 in week 15 against the Raiders.  Each side of the equation is similar in that we are seeking the probability of two mutually exclusive events happening: 1) Going for it; 2) Kicking the Field goal.  Here is the equation:

(6.078)(p)+(1-p)(1.425) = (.99)(2.734)+(1-.99)(.798), where:

p = probability of making a first down

6.078 is the state value of the Broncos facing a 1st-and-Goal at the opponent's 3-yard line if the Broncos make the first down

1.425 is the state value of the Broncos defense facing a 1st-and-10 at the Oakland 4-yard line if the Broncos turn the ball over on downs.

.99 represents the probability of making a field goal from the 5-yard line.

2.734 represents the state value of a Field Goal

.798 represents the state value of the Broncos defense facing a 1st-and-10 at the Oakland 12-yard line if they missed a the field goal

We know the probability of making the field goal already.  We solve for the other probability, that of what Denver would need to get the first down.  This gives us what our minimum success rate would need to be to take this risk as opposed to kicking the field goal.