In the recent Monday Night Football game, Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid went against conventional thinking and decided to go for 2 after his team scored a touchdown to take a 7-point lead with 8:06 left in the game. If they converted, they would go up by 9 points and the Raiders would need to score twice to beat them, but if they failed, the Raiders would only need a touchdown and an extra point to tie the game. But if they kicked the extra point, the Raiders would have needed to score a touchdown and convert a 2-point try to tie the game. After the Chiefs 2-point try failed, the Raiders drove and scored on a dazzling Davante Adams 48-yard touchdown catch with 4:34 left in the game. The Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels also defied conventional thinking and decided to go for 2 which got stuffed on the 1-inch line, and the Raiders, eventually lost by 1 point.
In recent years, there has been a rash of NFL head coaches going against conventional wisdom in their game management decisions. On Sunday, Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley decided to go for it on 4th and 1 from his own 46-yard line ahead by 2 with 1:14 left in the game vs the Cleveland Browns. Justin Herbert threw an incomplete pass which turned the ball over to the Browns who drove 10 yards to get into field goal range, but kicker Cade York missed the game winning field goal with seconds left. Injured Chargers star receiver Keenan Allen tweeted, "WTF are we doing" moments after Staley's decision.
Many of these non-conventional decisions are driven by data, by the analytics which projects winning probability for each possible decision. Hypothetically, if the analytics say going for 2, gives the team a 53% chance of winning while kicking the extra point, gives the team a 51% chance of winning, present day head coaches are going for 2 because, according to the analytics, that gives them a 2% more chance of winning. But simply because you go for it, does not mean you get it. And there are consequences when you don’t get it. There’s less than a 50% chance of converting the 2-point conversion, which means there is more than a 50% chance you’ll come away with nothing. What is not factored into these equations is the change of offensive philosophy by your opponent if you fail your attempt. If the Raiders tied the game by kicking the extra point, the Chiefs would have to be more aggressive because they need to score to win, whereas if they were up by one, they could be more conservative because all they had to do was collect a few first downs to run out the clock.
Occam’s Razor states, ‘all things being relatively equal, the simplest solution is almost always the best solution.’ These analytic driven decisions make the game complicated and less straight forward than it needs to be. Modern Portfolio Theory in investments says that when the expected returns of two portfolios are relatively close, choose the least volatile one, even if it’s expected return is less than the more volatile one. These types of analytics driven game management decisions are adding more risk, more volatility to the equation. Going for 2 is a much more volatile decision than kicking the extra point. And these decisions are decisions because the expected outcomes are razor thin. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be called “decisions”, they would be called “no-brainers”. So, choosing the simplest, least volatile decision should be the best, even if the riskier decision gives you a slightly higher win probability.
Driving in my car, sometimes the GPS will initially project that I am to arrive at my destination in 30 minutes, taking major thoroughfares and highways. But once I get into the trip, the GPS will ask if I want to take an “alternate route”, discovered by the algorithms, to save 5 minutes. Whenever I choose the alternate route, I end up on obscure roads, driving through neighborhoods, behind a garbage truck traveling at 12 mph, and I arrive at my destination 15 minutes later than the original projection. The simplest route, the simplest solution, the simplest decision is to take the main roads, not the back roads.
Head coaches will defend these data driven decisions by claiming they were being “more aggressive”, but if they are truly data driven, they cannot be characterized as “aggressive”. “Aggressive” is an emotional judgement about the decision. Aggressive means taking on extra risk whereas “data driven” is supposedly neither risky nor safe, it’s neither aggressive nor non-aggressive. Its supposedly getting you the right answer, which is neither risky nor aggressive, but simply right.
One of the biggest caveats in football is ‘don’t do things to get you beat’. And those things are mental mistakes, penalties and committing turnovers. So going for it on 4th & 1 and not getting it is equivalent to a turnover, whatever part of the field you’re on. If on 3rd down before the Chargers 4th & 1 play, Justin Herbert threw an interception that gave the Browns the ball on the Chargers’ 46-yard line, Herbert would be roundly criticized for blowing the game with a turnover, but if the head coach goes for it on 4th & 1 a play later and they get stopped, giving the Browns the ball in the exact same spot on the field, its passed off as analytics even though the result was the same as Herbert throwing an interception.
Whenever head coaches are asked about these non-conventional decisions, they will say that they “trust their players”. How is rolling the dice on a single play “trusting the players”? Trusting the players would be a willingness to play it out in overtime. “I trust my players are better than the other team’s players in an extra period of play.” Trusting your players is not purposely reducing the outcome of the game to a single play that could go either way. Rolling the dice on one play is the exact opposite of trusting your players. This so-called aggressiveness is not bold or courageous, it’s borderline cowardice. If it doesn’t work out, the coaches hide behind “I followed the analytics” when the courageous decision would have been to go against the analytics and trust your team to win the game.
The over reliance on analytics and metrics is turning head coaches into robots and ruining sports. What happened in the 2020 World Series is a perfect example. Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell was dominating the Dodgers in game 6, only allowing 2 hits and striking out 9, but the analytics told manager Kevin Cash to take Snell out and that decision cost the Rays the game and the series. The Dodgers immediately scored 2 runs on the Rays relief pitcher, and never looked back. But Cash hid behind the analytics and escaped blame. So just do what the computer tells you to do, and you’ll be fine. Be a robot, and you’re good. Total reliance on analytics is taking the humanity out of the game.
There’s almost a lack of respect for the game; head coaches thinking that they can outsmart the game by allowing algorithms to make decisions for them. But in both of those games this past weekend, what showed up more than anything was the human element – these teams’ failure to execute. The Chiefs failed to execute their 2-point conversion attempt and were only saved because the Raiders failed to execute their 2-point conversion attempt. The Chargers failed to convert on 4th & 1, and only won the game because the Browns failed to make the game-winning field goal. We have lost sight of the human element. In each game, the failure to execute was the most deciding factor in the outcomes of the game. Execution will always be more determinative than game management decisions especially when the difference in projected outcomes of those decisions are so slim, they are negligible.
This is not to say that analytics should not be used. There are observations, conclusions, and points of view that analytics can arrive at that the human mind cannot, but there are also observations, instincts, and points of view that a human being can see, that analytics cannot. So, if you are not using both analytics and the human eye, you are doing yourself a disservice. It is just as shortsighted to say I’m only going to use analytics as it is to say I’m never going to use analytics. There is a reason why we have two eyes. The right eye looks at an object from one perspective, the left eye looks at the same object from a different perspective, and your brain merges both pictures together to create a clearer fuller image of the object with the proper depth perception. And that’s what the merging of analytics and the human perspective does, creates a fuller, more complete picture. We must not fall into the trap of worshipping at the altar of analytics at the loss of our humanity. At that point, sports and life become less fun, and less fulfilling.
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He has been a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.