Amongst the blizzard of Super Bowl articles out today there is a certain genre that compliments Sean Payton on his cojones. An example from this here blog:
â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥Blind circumstance governs whether boldness is perceived as inspired or reckless. â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥
â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥And Payton prevailed in this game because he wasn't afraid to be wrong. His was aggression tempered with patience. And preparation. â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥
Another from Slate:
â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥Head coach Sean Payton's Super Bowl philosophy, it appeared, was that it was better to look foolish than to act timid. Down seven at the end of the second quarter, Payton chose to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal rather than kick an easy field goal. The Saints got stuffed. The coach's response: an onside kick to start the second half, the first in Super Bowl history before the fourth quarter. Win or lose—or lose while taking huge risks that could make you look totally ridiculous—Payton had decided the Saints would be aggressors.â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥
It is true that Payton has big, enormous cojones reminiscent of Les Miles when being Les Miles was going well. There would have been an outpouring of condemnation if Payton's moves hadn't worked out. If the Colts had won, this piece would be me crankily deconstructing someone's argument that Payton cost his team a field goal by going for it on fourth and goal*, and the guy's job might be under fire.
But the Slate article is a classic example of a common, flawed thought pattern: Payton is aggressive, not timid, end of story. At no point does the idea that one choice might be better than the other enter the equation. It's a strange idea to be so ubiquitous. Most of the folk complementing Payton are doing so under the assumption that he went all-in without even looking at his cards.
In reality, Payton made two calls that well-established mathematical models says are correct. Via Advanced NFL Stats, the fourth and goal:
â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥Going for the TD was clearly the better call, 0.41 vs. 0.32 [win probability]. If you don't buy the 68% success rate [for fourth and goal from the one], the break-even rate, where going for it yields an equal WP as the FG, would be 42%. In other words, as long as Sean Payton believed his offense had a better than a 42% chance of getting the TD, he should go for it.â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥
When you're at the helm of the NFL's top-scoring offense and most of the other team's salary cap is on the sideline in a "Manning" jersey, that's a good bet. The same method also holds the onside kick to be a good gamble, albeit a closer one, mostly because surprise onside kicks have a surprisingly high 60 percent success rate.
So Payton's audacity is the main storyline of the Super Bowl, and David Romer may finally be able to claim victory.
Who's David Romer? He's an economist who's a cause célèbre amongst the dorkier outposts of football fandom who wrote "Do Firms Maximize?" The innocuously titled paper is a study of third and fourth down percentages in the NFL with one huge blinking conclusion: go for it. When Romer wrote the paper he found that in today's NFL going for it is more valuable than kicking a field goal or punting in almost all situations where the distance to go is manageable, and slowly, ever so slowly, teams are coming around to the idea that sometimes a risk avoided is just one deferred and magnified.
A few years ago, Dick Vermeil attempting to punch it in from the one to win was a "bold move" that "shocked the Raiders." Earlier this year, Bill Belichick was raked over the coals for taking a very David Romer approach—a correct one—to a late fourth and two against these very Colts. Today, Sean Payton's full-throttle coaching is in the headlines, and a revolution started with an economics paper has reached the point of no return. It's not just "bold": it's smart. If you doubt that Sean Payton had his face deep in these sorts of statistics, here's his estimate of the Saints' chances on the onside kick:
â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥"We felt there was a 60, 70 percent chance (of recovery) based on their look."â‡¥â‡¥â‡¥
This is a man who has seen a chart in his day.
The quieter event: trailing by one, Indianapolis faced with a fourth down of its own from around midfield. They went for it, they got it, and they pushed a field goal just wide. Hardly anyone noticed. In two or three years this sort of "aggressive"—read: mathematically correct—playcalling will be the NFL's equivalent of Moneyball.
*(This hypothetical argument would be wrong because the terrible field position the Colts found themselves in induced conservative playcalling and a three-and-out that set the Saints up with good field position. The Saints ended up with a field goal; if they'd kicked the chip shot Indianapolis would have gotten much better field position and embarked on a two-minute drill with Peyton Manning at the helm.)â†µ
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.