Tuesday, September 12, 2017


"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts... for support rather than illumination."
-Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

I came across this quote earlier today and it reminded me of one of my notions about metrics and sports.  We hear coaches and pundits speak about athletes' "intangibles."  By this they mean skills an athlete may or may not have that can not be measured--or at least to date people have not been able to identify a way to measure these intangibles.

It is true in every sport, but certainly in football, using statistics to assess an athlete's contributions is risky business.  Some quarterbacks can put up some impressive numbers but they do not win many games. Yet others have modest records in terms of passing yardage yet they win games.  Drew Bledsoe could throw beautiful passes and often had games with a good deal of passing yardage, but his won loss record was average. Similarly Jeff George had a great arm, but did not win as much as his statistics would suggest.

I just watched an NFL film called Do Your Job.  This was the second version of Do Your Job as a documentary of the same name came out after the Patriots had won the 2014 super bowl as well. The film explains the thinking and preparation that went into the Patriots' victory.   The film documents that decisions by the coaching staff and players that can not be measured were key to the great comeback.  Hightower decided to line up on the outside before he sacked and stripped Ryan in the fourth quarter.  The coaching staff called a pass defense before Ryan was sacked prior to the Patriots tying drive.  

Pundits don't typically quantify smart decisions, they quantify sacks and tackles. But if the tackle was a derivative of a smart decision, then maybe what needs to be counted is how many times a player or coach puts the team in the position to do something that is traditionally quantified.

About twenty years ago the Tennessee Titans lost a super bowl to the St. Louis Rams. The record will show that on the last play of the game a Titan caught a pass and stretched out but was inches away from the goal line when tackled.  The reason he was inches away and not over the goal line was because he had cut in before he was supposed to do so.  Therefore he received the pass away from the goal line and not across it. In the record books the last play will be counted as a reception, but it was a negative play because of a poor decision.  

The Titans themselves were in the game because of a mental mistake that was made by the Buffalo Bills earlier in the playoffs.  The Bills were ready to go ahead on a field goal with seconds to play.  The Bills quarterback was supposed to wait until there were three seconds left before calling time out before the field kicker would come in and do what field goal kickers do.  

Instead of waiting until three seconds remained, the quarterback-Ron Johnson-called time out earlier.  The kick went through putting the Bills ahead, but because the time out was called prematurely, the Bills had to kick off to the Titans who miraculously scored on a trick run back. I once got into a sports related dispute with a fan of the then Bills quarterback. The person I was debating with said that Johnson had done everything to get the victory.  He cited the statistic that indicated that Johnson had moved the ball into field goal range for the winning kick.  But by not waiting a few seconds, a mental mistake that is not tabulated, the Bills ultimately succumbed.

SSo, the quote above resonated. Stats, in sports at least, are used often for support but the illumination they provide is often illusory. 

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