Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Icing the Kicker and Running It Twice

Forgive me another football-related post today. I realize there are other things going on in the world that certainly rate as slightly more significant, all things considered -- including within our little poker world where the WSOP Europe Main Event is today playing down to an eight-handed final table (with none other than Phil Hellmuth enjoying the chip lead with nine players left as I hit publish). But yesterday I was listening to some commentary about last weekend’s NFL games and heard something sorta interesting (and poker-related) I thought I’d share today.

I’m locked in on these NFL games once more thanks to being in this “pick’em” pool in which we’re trying to predict winners of all games. Trying to defend my title, in fact, after lucking out last year to finish first in the sucker.

Had a decent Week 4 in which I managed to be correct with my picks for 12 of the 15 games. Much better than the previous week when I only got 6 of 16. (I blame the replacement refs, of course.)

One of the games I missed this past weekend was the New York Giants-Philadelphia Eagles game from Sunday night. I had the Giants, but the Eagles prevailed 19-17. Like many NFL games, this one came down to the wire with New York missing a potential game-winning field goal at the end.

With 10 seconds left, the Giants’ kicker Lawrence Tynes -- who had hit all 10 of his FG attempts this year, in fact -- lined up for a 54-yard field goal try. Employing a much-used strategy that many NFL watchers have complained about over the last few years, Philadelphia called a timeout a split-second before the ball was snapped. The play continued, with Tynes missing the attempt wide left. But since the timeout negated the play, the Giants were able to try the kick again.

The second time Tynes kicked the ball straight down the middle but just a yard or two shy of the crossbar and it fell short, ensuring the victory for Philadelphia.

What I wanted to write about concerned that strategy to call a timeout in order to disrupt a team attempting an important field goal at the end of a game -- the so-called “icing the kicker” strategy that often results in a kicker ultimately attempting the field goal two times with only the second attempt actually counting.

The number-crunchers have looked deeply into the strategy, ultimately coming up with statistics showing that calling a timeout might have some small effect on kickers, although not a big one statistically. Over on ESPN’s “stats blog” they reported this week that since 2001 kickers are hitting 81% of those late-game field goals when no timeout is called and 76% when the timeout is called. Sounds like the difference is a little wider when it comes to overtime field goals.

Anyhow, I was listening to sports radio yesterday, ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” program that serves as suitable background noise when doing other tasks. To be honest, a lot of the commentary and so-called “analysis” by the show’s hosts, Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, can be superficial and rarely enlightening. Like a lot of sports radio, they talk about sports like fans, not really bringing much insight beyond what any of us could pick up by watching the games ourselves. But they’re entertaining and likable, and occasionally hit upon some decent topics of discussion. Besides, it’s fun sometimes to hear fans jawing about a game we’ve also watched. (Here’s a post from last spring in which I complain a little about the lack of depth one encounters in most sports commentary.)

Yesterday I was listening to Monday’s podcast of the “Mike and Mike” show, a kind of digest version of the lengthy show they do each morning, and as they talked about Sunday night’s Giants-Eagles game the topic of icing the kicker predictably arose.

Golic mentioned how Michael Vick, the Philadelphia quarterback, said after the game that he hated the strategy of calling a timeout to try to psyche out the kicker -- this despite the fact that his own coach, Andy Reid, had employed it. “I don’t believe in icing the kicker,” Vick was quoted saying in USA Today. “You let him kick it, and if it’s in, it’s in.”

Neither of the Mikes are fans of icing the kicker, either, and they went on to talk about how calling that timeout at the last moment does give a kicker a kind of “warm-up” attempt which might in fact be useful when it comes to long field goals such as the one Tynes faced on Sunday.

Greenberg went so far as to say “the one thing I would never do is what Andy Reid did last night... [and] give a guy a second chance to try a long kick.” In other words, since longer kicks are (for most kickers) more difficult, he would rather avoid giving a kicker a first attempt that didn’t count as it might improve his chances of making the second one. “It’s like letting a guy with a 12-foot putt with a big break in it try it twice,” said Greenberg.

That was the comment that made me think about poker and the somewhat popular strategy of “running it twice” in cash games -- you know, those spots where players are all in and agree to have the remaining community cards dealt two times with each result determining where half of the pot goes. Our friend the Poker Grump wrote about the topic and facing the decision himself not too long ago. Here’s an example of players running it twice from an old episode of High Stakes Poker:

In the hand, Todd Brunson and Sam Farha get all of Farha’s stack in the middle on a flop with Farha leading with bottom two pair versus Brunson’s top pair of queens. Farha is a 70% favorite to win the hand, but they agree to run it twice. As it happens, Brunson wins the first time by making trips, but Farha’s hand holds up the second time and the pair split the pot 50-50.

Going back to icing the kicker, Greenberg was suggesting that by calling a timeout Andy Reid improved Lawrence Tynes’s chances of hitting the second field goal because the kicker benefitted from getting a practice attempt. Tynes and the Giants were taking a “long shot” -- literally -- and Greenberg didn’t like the idea of doing anything to make it easier on New York in such a situation.

Similarly does Farha let the underdog Brunson have a better chance of making his hand by running it twice. As Greenberg made his point I found myself thinking about whether or not it might be more or less prudent to run it twice in poker according to how big of a favorite or underdog one was. After all, as Greenberg was suggesting, it did seem that to let a kicker try a long field goal more than once was perhaps a less recommended strategy than might be the case for shorter kicks.

However, there’s a key difference that causes the analogy to break down. Only the second try actually meant anything for Tynes and the Giants, whereas both results counted for Farha and Brunson.

Still, there remains a kind of parallel between the two situations. In fact, when Vick argues to “let him kick it, and if it’s in, it’s in,” it sounds a lot like what Phil Laak is saying -- as PokerGrump quotes in his post -- regarding his decision to stop running it twice and to “embrace the variance.”

Like Vick and the two Mikes, I’m not a big fan of icing the kicker, either, and if I were to guess I’d bet they’ll probably institute a rule in the near future designed to prevent the practice. But my objection doesn’t really concern the effectiveness of the strategy (or lack thereof).

Rather, as I was alluding to last week, there are already too many examples of “do-overs and didn't-counts” in the NFL thanks to all of the replay challenges after every score, turnover, and other instances when coaches are able to throw the red flag and dispute calls. I’d like to be able to watch plays happen and know they were meaningful and counted, and not always be wondering if what I just saw was going to be rethought and revised. Then again, I’m a spectator, not a participant. I understand those actually playing the game aren’t going to be as ready to “embrace the variance” of human error in officiating.

But as far as icing the kicker goes, I think we might safely get rid of that particular variety of “running it twice” in football.

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