Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Real Reason Pundits Ripped Belichick

I remain so intrigued by yesterday's over-the-top reaction to Belichick from Sunday night.

The simplest answer is that it was a big game and a big call -- and it didn't work out. And sports pundits like nothing more than the safety of the second-guess.

The next-most simple answer is that the media hates Bill Belichick and extreme schadenfreude was the reason for the collective freak-out.

But in today's SN column, I put out another theory, because I just don't think the level of hostility -- the level of allergy -- can be explained away fully by the first two reasons.

I think that underlying all of it was what the 4th-and-2 call symbolized: The evolution of analytics in sports.

You saw it all over the place yesterday: The numbers bear out Belichick's decision. That it didn't work out was irrelevant; it was not only the smarter bet, but the safer bet.

The notion that he "should have" punted is the collected "wisdom" of decades of conventional thinking in the NFL. It's not right -- just conventional. And nothing brings down the thunder of sports pundits like going against convention.

Belichick (because of who he is) and the moment (biggest game of the year) simply put this decision on a higher plane, but it was a moment for the camp that dislikes -- even loathes -- quantitative analysis to say, "THERE: DO YOU SEE?!?!?"

There is a very real -- and quite possibly justified -- fear within sports media about the emerging work being done with data, mainly because it undermines long-held assumptions, but also because it exposes the cliches -- the conventional -- to being debunked.

Obviously, some embrace those new models -- you don't have to give yourself over to it entirely, but at the very least you need to acknowledge its validity and incorporate it into your analysis. (Joe Posnanski might be the very best at bridging the gap between qualitative and quantitative analysis -- he can think and write like hell, but always wants to back it up with data.)

Sports media -- and by that I mean the punditry -- is watching their expertise (sports) and their industry (media) transform... sometimes erode... right before their eyes. And it is unsettling. And many have decided that is best represented by young-ish, new-ish, quant-ish thinking.

So when they have the opportunity to try to undermine that advance -- say, when a leading practitioner goes with the analytically correct decision and it fails -- they will do it.

Yes, part of it was the "bigness" of the game. Part of it was loathing for Belichick. But part of it was their own complex about the evolution of sports... and their own place within it.

-- D.S.

UPDATE: Check out this interesting analysis by Cold Hard Football Facts about the coverage of 4th-and-2 by the traditional media compared to non-traditional. (I get a shout-out, which I appreciated -- I'd pass along this link even if I didn't get one.)

7 comments:

The Poobah said...

You're making an argument for something that doesn't exist. People were ripping this move as it happened. It had ZERO to do with the numbers. All the stats and numbers regarding the decision weren't available until yesterday. Do you think Belichick made this call based on "Moneyball" like statistical analysis? He made a call he thought his team could make. They didn't and he takes the criticism for the unnecessary risk. Nothing more, nothing less.

This smacks of your usual "sportswriters and experts don't get it" schtick.

R.A. Porter said...

I think it goes hand in hand with the general ignorance about - and even antipathy toward - science, analysis, and evidence-based reasoning.

Adrián said...

If the call was the right call then the Colts should be getting SOME credit for pulling out the 17 points comeback.

At the end of the day I think Belichick would just rather get the blame for the loss (knowing they'll still win their division) instead of Indy getting credit for a comeback win. In the Pats head they know they can beat the Colts, more so now that Indy's win was "gift-wrapped" and their coach made a "bad call".

CorrND said...

The reason I don't buy the quantitative analysis argument to support Belichick is because that kind of analysis is not available him on a play-by-play basis.

That the post-game probability analysis supports his decision does not vindicate him, because he didn't know those probabilities at the time of the decision. His decision was based on his gut, an instinct that trusting his offense on that play was better than trusting his defense against a red-hot Manning on a long field with 2 minutes and 1 TO.

That's fine, and there's analytical logic to it.

But don't tell me that statistical analysis -- the kind of sabermetrics that drive baseball and other sports-related decisions these days -- had a thing to do with his on-the-fly decision.

In fact, propping up Belichick's decision with the numbers after the fact is even more silly when you consider how close the probabilities turned out. Could a support argument be made if the calculated probabilities were reversed? His gut decision based on numerous variables just as easily could have produced that result.

And that's exactly the point. Belichick didn't know how the probability analysis would fall out and that makes it irrelevant to the discussion.

It was his gut.
It was fuzzy logic.
It was ego.

It really doesn't matter: he was simply wrong.

Jason Clinkscales said...

I agree wholeheartedly and while sometimes, the numbers can be a bit too granular for my taste, they are certainly challenging the status-quo.

With that said, I think that while it may not be the apparent fire-and-brimstone hate of Belichick, if a neophyte coach such as Detroit's Jim Schwartz or KC's Todd Haley made such a decision, the conversation would have ended before Monday Night Countdown.

Luis DeLoureiro said...

RA - I tend to agree with your comment. And, that attitude doesn't only apply to sports. If you haven't yet, you should read Super Crunchers. Basically, the book discussed how, with the advances in data storage, all business decisions should at least consider what the data says.

Also, read this post from yesterday's NY Times Fifth Down Blog. Great piece - but, I'm biased. I wrote it. It discusses how the analytic crew had more input here than usual.
http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/belichick-emboldened-the-geeks/

With all of this said, I do think that if the defenders of the analytically based reasoning try to suggest that ALL decisions should be based on numbers and analysis, they're not going to convert the skeptics.
Also, I think there's a touch of condescension in some circles. (i.e., if you don't understand the math, you're dumb).

Luis DeLoureiro said...

also, belichick doesn't have to do an analysis on the spot to remember that the odds are high that he will convert a 4th and 2. And, have a general idea of the odds of the Colts scoring from different parts of the field. I've heard he's a stats junkie and actually has lackeys running all kinds of models for him whenever new data comes available.

He wouldn't know the exact odds, but he would know enough to suggest that it's not an open and closed discussion - as some people believed.