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Friday, November 11, 2005

First... we have a new Best Search Ever: "michael vick having harpies."


No bad for a guy who kind of resembles Toad. Garrett Rivas is a Groza semifinalist. Reader Matthew Rudary queries:

Does this mean our kicking isn't as bad as I like to complain it is? Did he get good when I wasn't looking? Or is it just that I only remember the misses?
This proves that 1) I'm a sucker for an eecs.umich email address and 2) Mr. Rudary either wasn't paying attention during the Year of Kicking Dangerously or blacked out whenever the field goal team scurried onto the field--understandable if so. This seems to be a common phenomenon. Tom's Michigan season preview claimed that Rivas sent Michigan fans to their rosary beads and I've heard grumbling from my friends about Fat, Small Elvis. The question remains.... why? I mean:
He lists third in field goals scored (45) and field goals attempted (58) on Michigan's career lists and is second with a 77.9 field goal percentage during his career. Rivas has connected on 45 of 58 field goal attempts in his career and is 35 of 42 from inside 40 yards (83.3 pct.). He is tied for fourth in school history with 10 field goals from 40 yards or longer. Rivas has converted 24 of his last 29 field goal attempts dating back to last season. He is seventh among active kickers in field goals scored.
Rivas doesn't have ideal leg strength but 78% lifetime is close to Michigan's best all time.

All right, I do remember jumping up and screaming "I HATE YOU" after Rivas had a critical field goal blocked against Purdue last year and after his miss at the end of regulation against MSU I was quietly planning to get that kitten with a sniper rifle up on the belltower. His dual misses against Minnesota were a major factor in that loss. But the Brabbs-Neinberg-Finley triumvirate of suck makes me think we'll miss Toad when he's gone.

That said, I'd rather that Rivas not lead the Big Ten in made field goals, as that's a sure sign of a crap offense. Guys who kick nothing but extra points are not Groza semifinalists.

More reader input. What is this, a blog? Alton Hollingsworth points out a relevant post on the Freakonomics blog about loss aversion and the NFL. In short, the Chiefs and Raiders found themselves in exactly the same situation USC and Notre Dame did earlier this year, with the Chiefs in the USC role down three with one play from the one yard line. Vermeil pounded Larry Johnson into the end zone and won the game. As discussed here and elsewhere in the immediate aftermath of OMG BEST FOOTBALL COLLEGE EVER GAME, this is an obvious decision. Salon's King Kaufman* has a post in the comments that details the, er, details in, er, detail. In short: you're a dummy if you don't go. This was the USA Today headline:
“Chiefs’ Bold Gamble Hits Pay Dirt at Home: Kansas City shocks Oakland with touchdown after forgoing tying field goal on last play of game.”
Yet more evidence that sportswriters and math don't get along, which prompted some theorizing in the comments that Vermeil's decision was unusual because coaches are attempting to avoid the scrutiny a failed "bold" (high variance) but correct decision would bring. Here's King:
What makes Vermeil’s move so unusual isn’t that he took a gamble—as others have pointed out, kicking the field goal would have been the riskier move, the decision less likely to result in a win—it’s that he put himself in position to be have the blame fall squarely on him if his team lost. That blame being misplaced or ill-informed would make it no less heavy.
I'm not entirely sure I buy this, since any loss gets people heated about the coaching. Though Barry Switzer did get roasted over the coals after failing on fourth down from his own thirty while trying to kill a game, that situation was far more ambiguous if I remember it correctly. He got fired shortly thereafter, but had he lost that game in more conventional fashion he likely would have gotten fired anyway. Any coach that loses for any reason gets fired. Is the difference between a "bold" loss and a conventional loss really enough to swing public opinion? I doubt it. 6-10 is 6-10 is 6-10. Unless you take the wind.

One thing there can't be any doubt about is that attitudes about statistics are changing. College football, always home to more experimentation than a Tampa bathroom full of cheerleaders (ZING!), is experiencing a tiny revolution in fourth down strategy that David Romer should be getting royalties for. Even Lloyd Carr, college football's archetypical crotchety grandpa, is getting in on the act. As for the media, the smarter members of it--the oft-referenced TMQ, Kaufman, and Dr. Z, for instance--are already leaping on board the train of common sense. This transformation will never be complete, since angry vigilante justice will always be demanded by fans of losers (and there are always more losers than winners), but there will at least be a second voice out there that doesn't breathe through its mouth.

As per usual, Football Outsiders is all over this, contrasting Vermeil's decision with Marty Schottenheimer's choice to kick a field goal in a superficially similar (fourth and goal from the one) but really vastly different (up eight with about ten minutes left) situation. They cite more media reaction:
Days after Johnson’s last-second touchdown, fans and analysts were still gushing over Vermeil’s decision to go for the win rather than attempting a game-tying chip shot field goal.

“I thought it was about as gutsy a call as I have seen broadcasting the NFL, which I’ve done every year since 1985,” said announcer Kevin Harlan. The Kansas City Star devoted a whole article to the jubilant reactions of dumbstruck fans.

The next thing I will do to amaze Kevin Harlan: I will choose to not cut my legs off. Schottenheimer got the bad stick, though:
On the Monday edition of his television show, Rome took time out from ESPN’s 24-hour Terrell Owens format to attack Schottenheimer for kicking a field goal from the one-yard line in the fourth quarter against the Jets. To paraphrase Rome, the Chargers had their hands around the Jets’ neck but refused to squeeze.
Note that his team won. There's plenty of evidence here that ratings-seeking mouthbreathers like Rome will find a way to criticize you no matter what decision you make, so you may as well make the right decision. It's hard to criticize a winner.

The thing is: Schottenheimer's decision was almost definitely the right one. There's a huge difference between the two situations. Vermeil was faced with a 70% win if he ran and 50% if he kicked. It's a duh. Schottenheimer's situation is much harder to analyze, but there is great value in pushing a one-possession eight-point lead to a two-possession eleven-point one. The Jets--a crappy offense--were forced to score two touchdowns on two possessions to win. They didn't. Schottenheimer maximized his chances of victory, but that doesn't make good copy.

(Media bashing and game theory? In one topic? I'm in heaven.)

*(strangely enough, one of the best sports columnists in the country. Strange because he's at Salon of all places and not, like, a sports company. He's also a nice guy. I fired off an email promoting college hockey to him after he mentioned it in one column and he responded and promised to go to the Frozen Four when it inexplicably swings by St. Louis.)