Sean Payton Can Read Charts, And Jim Caldwell Can't

Football dorks unite: while you were busy last night confusing Sean Payton’s clear, mathematical reasoning with "guts," gridiron nerds of the world stood in appreciation of a man who clearly understood charts, probability, and the game theory you would presumably need to understand to run a professional organization of any kind, much less something with rules as fixed as those of American football.

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In summary: Sean Payton is not ballsy, he’s smart. Jim Caldwell, in contrast, was mediocre at best, and clearly fumbling away dollars at the $100 Blackjack table all night. Caldwell’s game management was directly from something we’ll call the “Norv Turner/ Wade Phillips/ Marty Schottenheimer” school of “Coaches Who Are Terrified Of Losing Their Jobs,” an irony given how many jobs each has held in the NFL.

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Caldwell passed up a possible 4th and 11 in the borderlands of FG/TD conversion for a field goal, opted for three runs before giving the ball back to the Saints at the end of the second half, and then failed to use timeouts in the final three minutes effectively. Worse still, Caldwell failed to realize what he was up against: an opponent determined to win and willing to hedge every bet to the optimal side. (Or as analysts mislabel it, “the aggressive side.”)

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Caldwell’s relative conservatism cost the Colts, but he’s not alone. Consider every team who lost to the Patriots, one of the most stat-driven operations around. They share the fate of being a team that lost to a team with a better understanding of the raw numbers behind the game and possible outcomes on every play.

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It’s geekery, and it’s hard to explain to the masses, and that’s why it gets lost in the translation to the Shannon Sharpe School of Broadcasting. (His version of “Love Reign O’er Me” during pregame was moving, however.) NFL coaches as a whole might not understand it well, either, but a grip of game theory and probability may have moved from the “desired” and into the “required” column on NFL coaches’ want ads this year. It’s a copycat league, after all, and that means there’s a booming job market with openings for stat majors wherever there are smart NFL teams looking to mimic what’s worked so far in the 21st century National Football Leeeeeeeague.*

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*Copyright Merrill Hoge and Mark Schlereth

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