Sunday, January 25, 2015


[Much of the analysis that follows, and the story of Virgil Carter, comes from “The Hidden Game of Football” by Carroll, Palmer and Thorn, first published in 1988]

Greek tragedy doesn't do the boffo box office it did in Aristotle's day. In 2015, we're more into RomComs or CGI spectaculars or comedies like “Bad Bosses 2,” with Jennifer Anniston as the irrepressible nymphomaniac. Nevertheless, the ancient echoes of “Oresteia” and “Medea” and “Oedipus” still speak to us of the inevitability of doom that follows, that must follow, a moral transgression.

I am speaking, of course, of the Green Bay – Seattle game, a Greek tragedy with Packers coach Mike McCarthy in the role of Oedipus, for that is what Packer fans were calling him after the game. Well, not “Oedipus” exactly, but its modern 12-letter equivalent. In the first quarter, you didn't know how the Pack would pay for its sins against the gods of football, but you knew they would.

I watched the game with a horrifying certainty that Green Bay would be punished, with the suspense and drama residing only in the method by which their comeuppance would be exacted. An emergency on-field leg amputation for Aaron Rodgers? A Green Bay coach disemboweled in a bizarre sideline accident involving a linebacker, a cheerleader and a parabolic microphone? Instead, the vengeance from Mount Olympus was simple, but perfectly fit the crime. After giving away points in that first quarter (to the Seahawks! in Seattle! in the NFC Conference Championship!), Green Bay found itself, as the clock ticked down to 0:00 in regulation, needing just one of those squandered points for a victory they had thrown away. (And by the way, did anyone on Planet Earth think Green Bay would win in overtime?)

It was the field goals, of course. You can't kick those field goals. In the first quarter, with 8 minutes remaining, Mike McCarthy was facing 4th and goal at the 1/2-yard line. He didn't hesitate, and sent out the fieldgoal team to kick an 18-yarder.

(Mike McCarthy: You're looking especially hot today, Jocasta!
Jocasta: I dunno, Mike, it feels funny somehow.
Mike: Hey, what could go wrong?
Jo: Oh...OK. Can you unzip me? Oh, wait. That's right. Zippers haven't been invented yet!)

Three minutes later, following a Seattle turnover, Green Bay again found itself 4th and goal at the Seattle 1-yard line, and McCarthy again took the three points.

You can't kick those fieldgoals. You can't kill your father and you can't have sex with your mother and you can't kick those fieldgoals. I'm not really sure which of the three is worse, though I lean toward the fieldgoals. I guess I'll leave that issue to the professional theologians and philosophers.

The reasoning is not complicated, and you would think that most football coaches would have figured out the 4th-and-1-in-the-first-quarter scenario by the time they got their first paying job (or would have had it explained to them). We are only looking at two choices here---kick it or go for it---and all we have to do is calculate the resulting points (the “expectation”) from each option.

Option A, the fieldgoal, is easy to assess. You are almost certain to make a fieldgoal from that distance. Call it 97%. Multiplying 97% by 3 points is about 2.9 points, and that is your expectation. On the rare occasion the kick is missed, Seattle gets the ball on its 20-yard-line, which, as we will see later, holds no advantage for either side.

Option B, trying for the touchdown, is a bit more complicated since there are two possible significant outcomes---you score the touchdown or you don't---and the differing expectations from these alternatives must be summed.

First, the chance of making a first down (or in this case, a touchdown) on 4th and 1 does not vary much from year to year in the NFL. You have about a 66% (or 2/3) chance of making the first down. Since a touchdown is worth 7 points, going for it nets you 2/3 times 7, or 4.6 points. This is already 1.7 points better than the 2.9 points to be expected from the fieldgoal.

(These are averages, of course, and the odds for a particular team against another particular team in a particular situation may be different. But is there any reason to think Green Bay's chances, even against Seattle, are worse than the league average?)

But there's more! What about the 1/3 of the time Green Bay fails to make the touchdown, and Seattle takes over at its 1-yard-line? What are the expected points arising out of that situation?

For this, we turn to the work of Virgil Carter, a BYU quarterback who became an NFL journeyman and backup for three teams in the 1960's. He was not a great QB, but he was a smart guy, and he had the brilliant insight that field position in football could be expressed as a number of expected points for one team or the other. His findings were published in Operations Research in 1971.

Carter compiled years of data from NFL games and determined, for example, that a team with a first down at the 50 yard line has an expectation of +2 points. This doesn't mean they would score a safety, and it doesn't mean they would score at all in their current possession. It means that when you average all the “next scores” in all the games where a team had a first down at the fifty, the average result was +2 points for that team. This could also be expressed as a -2 expectation for the team on defense.

All of which brings us to Seattle's expectations if they succeeded in stopping Green Bay and took over possession at their own 1 yard line. According to Virgil Carter (and subsequent work), Seattle's expectation with a first down at its own 1 is -2 points. In other words, if you are stuck that deep in your own territory, the other team is more likely to make the next score than you are.

Remember that 2/3 of the time, Green Bay scores its touchdown, with an expectation of 4.6 points. The other 1/3 of the time, when Green Bay fails, they are still a favorite to put up the next points, and that expectation is equal to 1/3 times 2 points, or .7 points.

Green Bay, by going for the touchdown, expects 4.6 plus .7 points, or a total of 5.3. Since their expectation when kicking the fieldgoal is only 2.9 points, they give away 2.4 points when they kick from the 1 yard line. And they did it twice.

Kicking those fieldgoals was a dreadful mistake. Green Bay gave away almost 5 points by doing so. Worse, they summoned the vengeful gods of football and made their defeat the only just result.

There are people who will not criticize a coach for doing something unforgivably stupid, like kicking those fieldgoals. The broadcasters certainly didn't. They said something like, “Seattle forced the Packers to go for three.” Of course, the Seahawks did no such thing. McCarthy did what he did because in a situation he has seen hundreds of times in his career, HE HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO DO! Or he “went by his gut” (another dopey thing broadcasters will often say), as if there is no objective answer to the question of whether to kick the fieldgoal or try for the touchdown. But there is. There always is. Sometimes it can be a close call, but there is always an objectively correct answer. And this was decidedly not a close call.

When you are playing blackjack and you have twelve while the dealer is showing a face card, you take a card. You do so not because you “have a feeling,” but because it is the correct play. Presented with that situation a million times, you will win more (or lose less) by taking a card than by standing pat. Your feelings have nothing to do with it. Among other things, the cards don't know you have feelings and they wouldn't care about your feelings even if they did know. The inexorable percentages in the NFL are much the same way.

Mike McCarthy won a Superbowl a few years ago, and it's hard to fire a guy like that no matter how little he knows about basic game strategies. What Green Bay should do, however, is to hire some local kid who plays poker and backgammon and a few other games, and have him stand on the sidelines with Mike and tell him when to punt or go for it or kick a fieldgoal or when to go for two after a touchdown. You wouldn't have to pay him much---let's say $100 a game and a few hotdogs. He would win a game for them every year, a game they should win but which Mike McCarthy would otherwise piss away.

** ** **

And then there's the Superbowl, featuring Seattle and Green Bay, which Vegas says is a pick-um. Based on my numbers, Seattle is better. Surprisingly perhaps, the Seahawks win the yards/pass contest 6.4 to 6.1. With defensive yards/pass, they are even better. Seattle wins that matchup by a 4.7 to 5.3 score.

As you may have gathered, I don't like Seattle much. I don't like the way they play, I don't like their ethically-challenged coach who left USC one step ahead of NCAA sanctions, and I don't like the way the NFL allows them to get away with what is politely called their “defense.” Also, I have grown fond of Bill Belichick for his increasing resemblance, behaviorally and even physically, to Richard Nixon. I want New England to win.

However, I don't think they will. “Inflategate,” or as I prefer to call it, “Ballghazi,” probably hurts New England here. First, it's a continuing distraction for the Patriots, while Seattle is left entirely unmolested by the media and can focus completely on their game plan. In addition, the media obsession with New England can be used by the Seahawks to pump themselves up. I mean, here they are, the World Champions, back for a second title, and nobody is talking about them. They ain't getting no respect, and it probably pisses them off.

After the gift victory from the Packers, Seattle wins the Superbowl this year.


Saturday, January 17, 2015


Often wrong but never uncertain---that's me and I'm proud of it. So even though I am a mere 2 – 4 against the spread on these games so far, I'll be happy to tell you who's going to win these games. And don't worry. You can rely on me. Bet the house.

Indy at New England (-7). Offensive yards/pass numbers are about even---NE has 6.1 and Indy has 6.0. New England's yard/pass on defense, however is superior---5.3 to 5.9. Also, as a general matter, the smart guys will tell you that the Colts' defense is not very scary. By my numbers, Indianapolis can't win this game, but of course, they couldn't beat Denver last week either. And that's the problem. The Colts are dangerous. A road win in the playoffs is a meaningful event. I like the Pats to win this game, but I wouldn't lay these points.

Green Bay @ Seattle (-7). Have they given the Superbowl trophy to the Seahawks yet? The games are just a formality, right? And what about the Stanley Cup? Did they give them the Stanley Cup too? That's the way is seems, doesn't it? Seattle's back. It's over.

Green Bay wins the yds/pass matchup by a 7.3 to 6.4 tally, with defensive yds/pass equal. Green Bay is, by my basic measure of playoff competence, better than the Seahawks, and they are getting 7 points as well. I like the Packers to win this game, and even if they don't, I certainly like them with the points.

Countervailing considerations include the following: 1) Seattle is at home where they are very good and Green Bay is on the road, where they are not, 2) the Packers were underdogs three times this year (at Seattle, New Orleans and Detroit) and they got toasted on all three occasions, and 3) Aaron Rodgers has one leg.  Problems.  I admit it.  So don't bet the house.  Just the Mercedes.  

Perhaps the biggest reason I like Green Bay is that the Seahawks are the best defensive team in the league and the best defensive team almost never wins the Superbowl. For the best defensive team to win it two years in a row? Well, I doubt it has ever happened.


Friday, January 16, 2015


This week, the Philadelphia Daily News published a column by their star blogger, Will Bunch, explaining that he and the paper were sensitively sensitive to people's sensitive sensitivities about religion and blasphemy and such, and thus would not be publishing any content from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. This was my response.

To the editor:

Will Bunch informs us ("Free to be--and not be--Charlie"), that he and his colleagues at the DN disapprove of the crude humor in Charlie Hebdo, and so will not print the cartoons that led to mass murder in Paris. A month ago, there was perhaps a place for Mr. Bunch's nuanced editorial judgments about what is, and what is not, proper. Now, however, the cartoons are at the heart of the biggest news story in the world and you are a newspaper. How can you not publish them?

In fact, this new-found, finely-tuned aesthetic sensitivity is just a fig leaf, and a transparent one at that. Cowardice is the only reason newspapers around the world, including the Daily News, will not publish this material.

The worst aspect of this is that we already know the harvest Mr. Bunch's attitude will bring. It's what we saw in Paris last week. If the Daily News (and the Inquirer and the New York Times and fifty other papers around the world) had published the Danish Muhammad cartoons after the riots in 2005, the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo might well be alive today. But when the Western press cowered in submission to the threats ten years ago, it only encouraged those who would kill to extinguish basic human freedoms. By refusing to fight back now, you ensure there will be many more Charlie Hebdo's, some large and some small. It will happen again and again. For evil to succeed, all that is necessary is for good people to do nothing.

To paraphrase Hyman Roth in Godfather II, "This is the business you have chosen." Like it or not, Will Bunch, you are in the free speech business, and when the barbarians are at the gate, when cartoonists are being mowed down with automatic weapons, it's a bit late for your delicate sensibilities. If you are a newspaperman, this is the moment you must stand up unequivocally for freedom.

Or not. Perhaps in your case, it's time to run away. Fine. Go. Take that job at the food co-op. Just don't call yourself a journalist anymore.


Saturday, January 10, 2015


Based on adjusted yards/pass numbers, none of these four games is close. New England is a half yard better on offense and .6 yards better on defense. Green Bay beats Dallas by a half yard on offense and .9 yards on defense. Denver is only .3 yards better than Indy on offense but 1.6 yards better on D. Seattle is 1.1 yard better than Carolina on offense and .8 yards on defense. All four home favorites should win.

But that's not always how it works, is it?

At the beginning of each season, the playoff dream of every coach and player in the NFL is the same: win enough games to get a top seed in the Conference, then: 1) bye, 2) home win, 3) home win, 4) Superbowl win. Considering how universal the desire, it's surprising just how infrequently this happens. Of the fourteen Superbowls played in this millennium, only four teams have gone bye/homeW/homeW/SuperW. These were the 2004 Patriots, the 2009 Steelers, the 2010 Saints and the 2014 Seahawks. The other ten championships were won by teams with at least one road victory along the way. The 2013 Baltimore Ravens had two road wins, one of which came in Foxborough, Mass. The 2012 Giants also had two (this was the year I kept telling you the Giants were the worst team in the playoffs, even after their two road wins). The 2011 Packers and the 2008 Giants each had three road wins on the way to their Superbowl victories.

Even I am capable of learning things, and after doing these predictions for several years now, this is what I have learned: if you win a road game in the NFL playoffs, you are a real threat to win it all. When you win on the road, you are a contender, no matter what my numbers say. Winning on the road is a BIG DEAL. (Or, as Joe Biden would put it, a “big f***ing deal!”)

As of which brings us to...

Baltimore @ N.E. (-7) The Patriots have better numbers, but they have the smallest advantage of any of the four favorites and the Ravens are proven road warriors, having won at Pittsburgh last week. Also, let's not forget that win in Foxborough two years ago. There are very few teams that win in New England in December and there are even fewer that win in January, and maybe a win two years ago doesn't mean much this weekend, but Harbaugh and Belichick and Brady and Flacco remember it.

Speaking of Flacco, he's not cute and southern and laid-back like Peyton and he's not self-deprecating and quiet like Rodgers, and he doesn't do commercials for big insurance companies, but he's a very nice player. His record in the playoffs is 10 – 4 and he owns a ring. Also, he has been in the league for seven years and I don't believe he has missed a game to injury.

This is a close call, but I'm taking the points with Baltimore.

Carolina @ Seattle (-11) The Panthers won the first round at home so we can't properly call them playoff road warriors, but their final regular-season game was a 34-3 thrashing of Atlanta, in Atlanta, to win their division, so that kinda sorta puts them in the category (and certainly made me take notice).

What I really like about Carolina is that they awakened on the morning of December 7 with a record of 3–8–1, and now have fought their way to the second round of the playoffs. I also like the 11 point spread.

It is possible, of course, that Cam Newton will complete his first two passes to Seattle ubercornerback Richard Sherman and find himself behind by two touchdowns 90 seconds into the game. At that point, Carolina players start taking out their cell phones to secure tee times at Pinehurst for Monday. Much more likely, however, is that both teams struggle to score and one of them wins a 16-14 war of attrition. Taking Carolina here is not about Cam Newton, it's about believing in the Panther's defense, and in their current magical mojo. I do.

When you bet against Seattle this time of year, you not only have to beat Seattle, but the referees as well. Nevertheless, I take the 11 points.

Indianapolis @ Denver (-7) In contrast to the first two games, one looks in vain for some magical mojo. By any measure, Denver is far superior and Indy would appear to be just another dome team going on the road in January. I do not discount Andrew Luck, who will someday win one or more Superbowls, but at this stage of his career, going on the road to beat a really good team is not something he can be counted upon to do. Take Denver minus the 7.

Dallas @ Green Bay (-6) And this is the easiest pick of the week. Green Bay has been the best team in football this year, and Dallas (like Indy) is a dome team going on the road (to Lambeau!) in January. Last week, at home, in a game dominated by the Lions, Dallas squeaked out a victory with considerable assistance from the zebras. What's to like about the Cowboys in this spot? Chris Christie's lucky sweater?

Romo has had one of his best years and he has now won two playoff games in his 11-year career, but he will have to wait until next year to win his third. Take Green Bay and be thrilled you are not being asked to lay two touchdowns.