Monday, January 19, 2015

Go For It or Take the Points?

Was captivated like most yesterday by that Packers-Seahawks NFC Championship tilt which ended so crazily with several unlikely plays going Seattle’s way to earn them the comeback and eventual victory.

If you saw the game, you know the plays to which I’m referring, the fake field goal TD, the Hail Mary two-point conversion, and the muff-and-recovery of the onside kick the most vivid of the among them. Those two instances of Green Bay choosing to kick field goals rather than go for it on short fourth-and-goal situations early on also loomed large throughout the day.

Regarding the latter, check out “The New York Times Fourth Down Bot” and its page assessing all of the fourth down decisions made in that GB-SEA game. Applying statistical-based findings about how such calls affect win probabilities, the NYT 4th Down Bot offers judgments on all fourth down decisions as games are being played. The obvious poker-related analogy would be to an online poker player’s “HUD” (Heads-Up Display) offering real-time stats that can be interpreted to help a player make plus-EV decisions on the fly.

As explained here, those findings generally recommend going for it on fourth down much more frequently than most coaches actually choose to do so. Of course, the NYT 4th Down Bot -- like all Monday morning quarterbacks -- can opine at will from the sidelines, not having to face the real-life consequences coaches do when making decisions.

Green Bay’s unwillingness to go for those two first-quarter fourth-and-shorts certainly seemed overly conservative at the time, especially when playing on the road in a do-or-die game versus such a heavy favorite. Not too surprisingly, the NYT 4th Down Bot recommended going for it in both cases yesterday.

Almost every other fourth down decision made yesterday was judged a “Good call!” by the NYT 4th Down Bot. A couple weren’t so cut-and-dry, with the judgments for those being “It’s complicated” and “Too close to call.” Only one other fourth down decision -- also by Green Bay -- was considered incorrect by the Bot, the one at the very end when the Packers punted with four minutes to go when facing fourth-and-14 on their own 39.

That one seems less obvious on the surface, but the explanation suggests the lateness of the decision, being up by 12, and other factors make it so that “teams who go for it would win about 2% more often than teams who punt.” As it happened, GB only gained 30 yards of field position on the play, and it would take Seattle just two quick plays to more than make that yardage back.

I’ve written here before about how I occasionally like looking at these mathematical models that crunch the numbers from thousands of games to give instantaneous interpretations of win probability. The graph from that GB-SEA game was especially wacky, as plotted by Advanced Football Analytics (see left). Green Bay was sailing along at at WP of 80% or above from the late first quarter onwards, peaking at 98% with 3:07 left and then suddenly plunging down to just 14% with 1:33 to go (after Seattle grabbed the lead). Things evened out after the game was tied and went to OT, but Seattle wasn’t challenged thereafter.

Today I was listening to sports talk radio and hearing an ex-player (who years ago also lost a heartbreaking conference championship game to miss a Super Bowl opportunity) talking about how losing hurts much more than winning feels good, another idea with which most poker players are familiar. Interestingly, that same player was also defending Green Bay’s decisions to kick those first-quarter field goals and “take the points.”

I think the first of these ideas -- that losing or failing hurts more than winning or succeeding feels good -- is not unrelated to the second one encouraging the avoidance of risk and acceptance of small victories over the prospect of having to endure what are perceived to be large losses. In any case, as fascinating as the numbers can be, humans and their capacity to be non-rational -- or not bots -- with their decisions are even more so.

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