Al Davis — may he rest in peace — provided the sports world and particularly the world of football with its defining quote: “Just win, baby!” Dan Marino, Karl Malone, Ken Griffey, Jr. — these are all-world players whose reputations are irreparably marred by ringless fingers while the David Ecksteins, Trent Dilfers, and Adam Morrisons of the world get to hold their heads high as Champions, as Winners.
It is this “win at all costs” attitude which dominates the sports world which makes it even more difficult to watch as coaches consistently throw points, yards, runs, baskets, goals, and most of all victories away through their timid decisions on the sidelines. Brian Burke, the proprietor as well as my employer at Advanced NFL Stats, sums it up extremely well in a roundtable with Deadspin:
Today’s NFL, unfortunately, is not as much about “Just win, baby” as “Just don’t lose.” There is a difference, and it’s not as subtle as it might sound. Modern sports statistics have come a long way toward answering questions that were once subjects of Monday morning water-cooler conjecture. Should they have gone for two? Should they have gone for it on fourth down? The answers to these kinds of questions show how timid coaches really are.
Winning is a stat, and the chance a team will win a game in progress is also a stat. Applied correctly, these kinds of numbers can be used to evaluate decision-making. It’s this kind of reasoning that allows us to analyze decisions that were previously considered purely the domain of the high priests of football gut instinct-the coaches. As it turns out, NFL coaches have not been trying to “just win.” Instead, their decisions indicate a clear pattern of merely delaying certain elimination from a game.
It is this idea of coaching to win as opposed to coaching not to lose which actually endears me somewhat to Bret Bielema’s timeout calls at the end of the Wisconsin Badgers’ 37-31 loss to the Michigan State Spartans. When the Spartans were stuck with a 2nd and 20 with 42 seconds left, Bielema saw a chance to win the game instead of a certain coin flip situation in overtime. The plan backfired, particularly as Bielema called yet another time out after the Spartans’ picked up 13 yards. The Spartans would pick up the first down on 3rd and 7, work their way into Hail Mary range, and, of course, take home the victory on what will go down as probably the worst play in Wisconsin football history. You can say many things about this strategy, but it most certainly was not timid. The idea of losing clearly never passed through Bielema’s mind — these timeouts embody “Just win, baby!”
It would be one thing, however, if Bielema was coaching with this attitude all game. It is another entirely when the coach picks perhaps the most risky, lowest-reward time in the game to finally flip the switch into aggression mode.
If the opportunity to get your own team a hail mary opportunity (the likely outcome if Bielema’s plan succeeds, given a mere 20-30 seconds on the clock and zero or one timeouts) is worth giving the opponent an equal or greater chance at their own, why isn’t it worth going for it on 4th and 1 from the opponent’s 13? Why isn’t it worth going for it on 4th and 8 from the 37 when down by six points? These two plays resulted in a blocked field goal and a net punt of 17 yards preceding the drive which still managed to produce the eight-point drive which put the Badgers down 31-17.
Hindsight is always 20-20 of course, but there is a wealth of data describing how coaches have historically been far too timid on these downs, and a large part of that is not acknowledging that these so-called safe plays have risks as well. Far too often, the thought is “Oh, we can just kick a field goal here,” as if sending the kicking team out to the field just means three points. This is not NFL Blitz. Kicks are not free.
Or the thought is that simply by punting, regardless of if the kick is downed at the 5 or brought out to the 20, the offense is put in some unsolvable situation. But this simply isn’t the case — when we open ourselves up to the tremendous amount of data encompassing in six years of college football drives (2005 through 2010) the difference in value of placing the ball at the 20 and at the 37 is a mere 0.6 points, and even placing the ball at the one as opposed to the 37 nets under a full point. Taking the chance and getting the first down, placing the ball at the opposing 29 yard line? Worth 3.409 points, and that’s without taking into account Wisconsin’s top-five (and possibly top-one) offensive firepower.
But instead, Bret Bielema played it safe, perhaps part of the curse of playing as the favorite — with so much at stake, many human beings, not just Bielema, focus on avoiding the loss rather than aggressively pursuing the victory. I know I have done so in many situations in my own life. It took a time of desperation for Bielema to finally abandon his timid streak, and unfortunately for the Badgers, this one time was arguably the worst possible time to do so.