Yahoo has a story out today on Chip Kelly. Not surprisingly it backs up the studies that have been revolutionizing the game in baseball, basketball, soccer, and even football today. A story that TMQ writer Greg Easterbrook began discussing in his iconoclastic science based posts over on page 2 at ESPN.
It’s a funny and interesting story in that it addresses the one area of sports in which science has little place, and logic is entirely ignored. On pressure packed down and distance, take the points or go for it decision making in football. Ever since Barry Switzer made a complete arse of himself nearly twenty years ago going for it on fourth down on consecutive downs (a penalty negated the first attempt), coaches have felt comfortable eschewing risk, and simply going by the standard modus operandi on fourth downs that carry risks, and taking the points on field goals with the seemingly flawless logic that some points are better than none if its fourth down, or that Holmgren was nutty to let Denver score late in the Super Bowl fourteen years ago.
Chip Kelly is indeed revolutionizing football and it’s easy and simple to understand why. All the old saw’s we’ve heard, all the old cliches, they are quite simply, wrong. I’ve argued with diehards for years that the argument that defense wins championships is utter bollocks, and until recently, I had few adherents on the subject. However, even before the relatively recent rules changes it was true, scrolling through super bowl victors over the decade one thing became consistently, and clearly true. Balance wins championships. Unbalanced teams, teams whose focus was offense (think Buffalo), or largely defense (think Ryan’s Eagles, or Dungy’s Buc’s) racked up plenty of wins but we’re always found out in the playoffs, while balanced teams built dynasties. The only and very rare exceptions were the Bears (’85), the Giants (’90, ’86 was stronger on offense), the Ravens (’00), and the Bucs (’02), and not coincidentally, every one of these teams won in distorted seasons, the Bears winning when the Niners and Redskins had entered a down cycle, and the Giants were a year away, the Giants won in ’90 because of a Montana injury, and a highly untimely Craig fumble as the Niners were salting away the last minutes of the game in Giants territory, the Ravens won in the worst year in memory for the AFC and NFC, and the Bucs won just before the Patriots figured out they were a dynasty, and while the NFC was in flux. Defense does not win championships, as the dynasties of the Niners, Redskins, Cowboys, Packers, Broncos, Patriots, Colts, and Steelers can attest these past thirty years, balance does. In today’s NFL the trend is shifting towards an ever greater focus on the all important value of the franchise QB which is precisely why the colts were genius to lose for Luck last year, and why the Redskins tossed away 3 likely top 10 and top 20 picks for RG3. With franchise QB’s handling the offenses of 75-80% of playoff entrants for nearly a decade running, and handling the duties behind center on losing and winning team alike virtually every year, their value cannot be underestimated, forever burying the old cliche that you build a team through the lines out. Not anymore. You get that franchise QB before you fall out of blue chip territory or risk building a team capable of challenging, but never actually winning (like the Ravens and Titans the past 10+ years in the AFC, and the Eagles, and Bears in the NFC).
The latest cliche being battered to death by metrics geeks, computer wizzes, and writers like Easterbrook, and Tim Livingston over at yahoo in his article on Kelly concerns the last refuge of conservatism in the NFL. Down and distance decisionmaking, and risk taking when attempting to score or kick off. For whatever reason coaches and players alike simply can’t shake the traditions that guide football in regards to risk. You never go for it on fourth down in your own territory. Bill Bellichek was an idiot against the Colts. You never go for it on fourth down, more than you punt. You never risk giving away 3 points on 4th down in a game unless your down by 8 late. Don’t do an onside kick unless you have too. Don’t go for two unless that clipboard say’s its fine.
Chip Kelly has a different point of view. As Penn Jillete once said about gambling in casino’s in Vegas when he plays there, “I don’t. I’m good at math,” so follows Kelly, who makes his decisions on fourth down, on fake kickoffs, on going for two based upon mathematical logic. Old timers like Mark Scherelth and Ditka will kick and scream at the idea, while media commentators will poo poo the decision, and/or evicerate coaches for failures in doing so (as they did Bellichek a few years ago), but Kelly will continue to ignore them just as Nate Silver didn’t bat an eyelash when he was attacked by Joe Scarborough for his science based poll predictions for tuesday’s election, and bet Scarborough that it wouldn’t be close (for the second consecutive election, Silver was deadly accurate in his prediction, correctly utilizing his math models to accurate predict 1073 of the 1076 electoral votes in ’08 and ’12 combined. Math, not surprisingly, works).
Is Kelly right? Quite simply. Yes. Just as defense never won championships, balance did, and just as today having a franchise QB is 3/4’s of the battle when it comes to being competitive in this league (try to think of how many franchise QB’s in this league the past 10 years have played for dogs in the NFL that didn’t contend, how about the past three years? Either way, the answer is an infinitesimal amount), so too is the inherent value of letting math, rather than hunches, or tradition, or conservatism, dictate decisions on going for two, going for first downs, and even kicking onside kicks. Kelly may not win a national championship this year, but he has helped turn Oregon into the most modern, most cutting edge football team in the country despite rarely drawing recruiting classes commensurate with what one would expect from powerhouses in the midwest, or SEC. Instead, he utilizes the field, math, Nike, and his mind to create a potential powerhouse in Oregon, and an offensive decision making schema that is likely to revolutionize the game just as thoroughly as rule changes, modern improvements in QB development, and the spread have done so this past decade, but in Kelly’s case, the impact of mathematics on football will be little different than the revolution metrics has accomplished in improving scouting and personal development in all sports around the world in all ways conceivable.
It is a brave new world out there in the sports, and those who spend far too much time looking back, will not be long for the shape of football to come.