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Never Tell Me the Odds

    "C3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1."
    "Han Solo: Never tell me the odds."

    This classic scene from the movie, The Empire Strikes Back is a wonderful example of the quandary faced by every NFL coach in just about every game.  In a game wherein there are around 3700 different factors to take into consideration, there are times when the odds/statistics advocate the coach doing one thing while the coach may be making a choice based on experience, game-moment observation, or just a plain, old, "gut" feeling.  The game of NFL football is like an intriguing blend of gladiatorial games played by championship poker players using the strategies of chess.

More after the jump

    So when does the coach go with his gut, and when does he defer to input of the statistician?  One example of how this has played out is in the decision by Belichick to go for a first down, late in the game against Indianapolis, while deep in his own territory.  The statistical odds advocated a punt, Belichick rolled the dice and went for it, reasoning that a first down would ice the game.  The rest, as they say, is history.

    Never Tell Me the Odds is a new MHR feature which will take a close look at various situations, past and present, in which the coach's perspective may, or may not, be aligned with what the statistics suggest is the best path.  It will be brought to our community by two of our most qualified staffers:  Steve Nichols - our resident coach and TJ Johnson - our resident statistician.  Brian Shrout will attempt to moderate the discussion between these two insightful minds as they offer their perspectives on topics, based their specialties.

    Steve (formerly hoosierteacher) is the resident coach on staff at MHR.  His background in football is coaching defense from the middle school to the high school levels.  He provides a lot of the Xs and Os articles for MHR, and does game preps during the season (MHR University and MHR Chalk Talk respectively).  As a coach, he feels that statistics are a valuable tool for decision making, but sometimes there are situations (that fans may not be aware of) when a coach believes the odds are a lesser consideration.  If you buy him a few drinks, he might break down and admit that his greatest obstacle in grad school was statistics.  Steve currently works in law enforcement, where his 6 foot 5 frame settles most matters quickly; he likes his odds.

    TJ as you may know is formerly lebowskibronco.  Although he was raised by wolves and was suckled through his infant years on milk tainted by an intense hatred of the Oakland Raiders, he today works in the area of business development and finance.  During last season, he faithfully brought MHR readers his weekly The Stats That Don't Lie column.  If you press him, he will indeed admit that often the stats do indeed lie.    Real statisticians terrify him because they are almost always smarter than he is and always have a more complex model.  However, his obsession with the value of every play has provided him with (he hopes) just enough training to annoy Steve.   When it doubt, though, TJ always abides.  

    As one of the newer MHR writers, Brian -- whom you may know as BShrout, or more colloquially as BS (which he has on occasion been accused of writing) -- is neither the coach that Steve is, nor the statistician that TJ is.  So what, pray tell is he doing with this series?  The favored answer is that he is good at seeing trends in behaviors and can bring together diverse perspectives.  He suspects that the real reason is that he is one of the newbies on staff and just happened to say "That sounds interesting," when this series was first proposed, so he was tapped to type and fetch coffee for the late night discussion sessions.  And the rest, as they say, is history. 

    Each article will address a single, specific, and concrete topic.  As TJ mentioned in one discussion about this series, we will deal with situations like:

". . .review a coach's decision to punt facing a 4th and 3 from the opponent's 48 yard line, [because] I can absolutely apply stats to this.  Even if I knew the weather was bad and make an assumption about how far the punt would go."

We will not be dealing with highly hypothetical situations such as this one, also posed by TJ:

". . . should I punt when I am facing 4th and 3 from the opponent's 48 yard line in bad weather and my punter was arrested the night before for soliciting prostitutes and in pre-game warmups vomited on the field . . . ."
    Please understand, the above example is but one of the types of questions we might address.    We will also be addressing such topics as why a coach may choose to use or not use a particular player, why a coach might prefer a particular type of play, blocking scheme, offensive/defensive formation, etc.  What plan to do is provide a discussion that is akin to bringing you, the reader, to a bar where the coaches get together after the game, so you can hear the kind of conversations that coaching staffs often have.  It might look something like this:
    Brian - "Coach, why would an HC ever NOT use a guy like Hillis?"
    Steve - "Well, it may have to do with his blocking skills."
    TJ - "The stats tell us that his blocking skills are (insert data here)"
    Steve - "Sometimes, a coach is aware of hidden issues too, like a personal problem.  Also, a player may have a terrible time adjusting to a new playbook."
    Brian - "Such as having a family member die?"
    TJ - "This could be true too.  Statistically...."

    Our goal is to take a look at Broncos situations (for the most part), and discuss the stats and coaching considerations that may go into why a coach makes a particular decision.  In essence, we will be treating you to a brainstorming session by two of our very knowledgeable staff writers -- who are often seen as personifying coaching and stats.  You, as the reader, will be invited to join in on the conversation. 
    We believe that Never Tell Me the Odds will provide all of us with a better understanding of the interplay between a coach's experience and the statistical history/evidence/odds, and how that interplay impacts game day decisions by the coach.  It will hopefully provide insights into why our coach may have chosen to make certain decisions -- though, we will not be focusing exclusively upon McDaniels' choices.  We are also looking forward to hearing what you, the MHR community, has to add to the discussion.