It was January 1, 1967, the temperatures were below zero in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The ball was set at the 1-yard line, on third down with 16 seconds left in the game. The Packers were trailing the Dallas Cowboys 17 to 14 with no timeouts left.
In modern day football, if that call was made, every NFL analytics person’s head would have exploded, and every sports writer would have resoundingly criticized Lombardi. According to analytics, it made no sense to run the ball in that situation. If you were stopped, there would not have been enough time to line up and run another play, or try for the game tying field goal. The game would have been over. The logical decision would be to throw the ball, preferably a rollout, so if the ball falls incomplete, the clock automatically stops, and you have time for one more play.
But Lombardi called the QB sneak anyway. Hall of Fame offensive guard Jerry Kramer drove Dallas defensive tackle Jethro Pugh off the ball, and quarterback Bart Starr dove into the end zone to win the NFL championship, and a trip to the first Super Bowl. Walking to the line of scrimmage before the play, Kramer said he could hear Lombardi’s voice in his ear, “if you can’t gain a yard, you don’t deserve to be champions.” That was old-time football.
On Thursday night vs the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley chose to “go for it” on 4th down instead of opting to kick 5 fairly easy field goals. The Chargers converted on 2 of those 5 fourth downs, and only scored 7 points on those five possessions. They eventually lost a game in overtime that they would have won in regulation if he kicked the field goals.
Staley’s game management decisions vs the Chiefs have been highly criticized because the Chargers lost the game in overtime. Yet, those game management decisions were the decisions that modern day analytics would have recommended. This has become the trend in the NFL in recent years. Head coaches have been opting to go for it on 4th down more often than in any other time in league history. Many of these coaches blindly follow the analytics because they know if the decision doesn’t work out, they can hide behind the analytics to absolve them of criticism.
All this started in response to the popularity of “Moneyball” that MLB General Manager Billy Beane brought to his decision-making process with the Oakland A’s. Most NFL teams over the past 10 years have created extensive analytics departments, and have deferred many game management decisions to statistical analysis and algorithms as opposed to the knowledge, experience, and gut instinct of the head coaches.
Yesterday, in the face of criticism, coach Staley snapped back at his critics saying, that “real football people understand” what he was doing on those 4th downs. What he doesn’t understand, and what most people who are praising or criticizing his decisions fail to understand, and what Vince Lombardi completely understood, is that teams do not win or lose based on coaching decisions like whether or not to go for it on 4th down. They win or lose based on how well they executed the decisions that were made. The Packers beat the Cowboys in 1967 because they executed better than the Cowboys on Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak play. Packer Running Back Donnie Anderson said, “It represented the discipline that Lombardi had taught us. We knew that we had to execute and we were determined to get the job done.” The Chargers lost to the Chiefs because they did not execute at a high enough level. In key situations throughout the game whether it be on those 4th downs, or on the goal line, or in overtime, the Chargers failed to execute more often than they succeeded, and that is why they lost.
This is what the analytics people fail to understand; it’s not about the play call, it’s not about the game management decision, it’s primarily about how well a team executes – how smart the players are, how disciplined they are, how technically sound they are. Most of the time, these decisions are decisions solely because the difference between the projected outcomes of the varying options are so marginal to the point that it becomes a decision. Deciding to punt on 4th and 30 from your own 5-yard line, is not a decision because the margin between the outcomes of the two options are so wide that no one would even entertain the alternative choice.
In football as in life, people don’t make the right decisions, they make their decisions right. What college you go to, who you marry, what job you take, the successful people don’t make some magical perfect decision which is predetermined for success, they make their decisions, and then they make their decision right. The successful people in life believe in the decisions they make. They work and prepare as if the decision is the absolute right decision, and then they turn their decision into the right decision. Second guessing decisions either before or after, which has become a national past time especially in sports, is an extremely destructive, and counterproductive. Make your decisions, believe in your decisions, don’t listen to the critics or the second guessers, and then work to make your decisions right.
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.