Sunday, January 06, 2008

The honeymoon is over

I listened to about a half-hour's worth of sports radio this morning, and it sounded like more people were blaming Mike Tomlin's play calling than Ben Rothliesberger's poor first-half performance for the Steelers' heartbreaking loss to Jacksonville last night.

Two decisions stand out: The two-point conversion attempt from the 12 yard line following the holding penalty that wiped out Hines Ward's end zone reception, and the quarterback draw on 3rd-and-6 late in the fourth quarter with the Steelers protecting a one-point lead. A couple of callers accused Tomlin of "playing not to lose" rather than playing to win.

If that was the case, then Tomlin made what I would characterize as a Cowher-esque mistake. Wasn't one of the knocks on Cowher that he wasn't aggressive enough in putting games away? Then again, being overly conservative seems to be a characteristic of a lot of NFL coaches -- why else do so many punt on fourth down when the odds favor going for it?

During Super Bowl XXXVI, John Madden said that the Patriots, with 90 seconds left and no timeouts, should run out the clock and go into overtime. Instead, they drove down the field and got the game-winning field goal. For that matter, doesn't Bill Belichick go for it on fourth down even when he has a comfortable lead? Maybe that's why the Patriots are 16-0 and about to rendevous with history.

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Blogger Vince said...

I recently had to explain to my wife the concept of playing by the book, going for the tie at home and the win on the road.
It seems like every couple of years or so, someone comes out with a study that shows that taking the risk (i.e. going for two, going for it on fourth down, etc) seems to pay off more.

12:31 AM

Blogger fester said...

What's that Banker's quote --- it's acceptable to lose money in conventional ways, while being a fire-worthy offense to lose money in unconventional ways --- or something like that.

I think there are principal agent problems (the coach has some self-interest in keeping his job), informational asymetry, and short time horizons. The coach ideally should want to do everything to help the team to win, and this would suggest going for it more often on 4th down etc. However the fan base and the media base does not believe the research indicating that an aggressive 4th down strategy is a good strategy, and thus when it fails, it is 'anti-confirmation' bias on how bad a coach is. Failure (ie losing) and the loss of fan/media support are two of the critical elements that will often get a coach fired. So most coaches will play it dumb intentionally (some coaches are just dumb in my mind).

Now lets take someone like Belicheck -- his incentives are different. He has massive ownership goodwill and backing (note the leaking of his contract status (signed until 2013) immediately after Spy-Gate blew-up), as well as a reservoir of the benefit fo the doubt from the fans and the media --- doncha know he's a genius, in Bill we trust. The occassional failure of the smart, and aggressive 4th Down strategy is accepted as a cost of doing business and not a long term threat to his job. That incentive structure changes as soon as Belicheck's team has two losing seasons in a row, but right now that is a low probability event.

A few other coaches are in the same shoes and can align their best interests with the teams' best interests. Coach Tomlin does not have that luxury at this point in his career. Cowher would have had that cushion if he wanted to use it.

4:46 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Of course, if I recall, Tomlin did go for it on 4th and 12 during the Jacksonville game, and the Steelers scored a touchdown.

I think there is conservative, and then there's conservative. I think it will be a long time before Tomlin lives down that 3rd-and-6 draw play.

9:22 PM


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