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Quick Inside Slant: Week 7

Impressions of the 2015 NFL Season as perceived by a Creative Writing graduate student, part-time amateur stand-up comedian and collegiate intramural flag football legend.

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By: Dustin Fisher

Boy, those were three really exciting weeks for Arian Foster fantasy owners.

A Logic Problem

Put on your nerd helmets, ladies and gents. It’s about to get all mathy in here.

If you were placed in a cage and given the choice to hit one of two buttons – a red button or a black button – and one of them gave you an average of 7.21 Fudge Stripe cookies, while the other one only gave you an average of 4.24 cookies, what would you do? I’ll tell you what a chimp would do. He (or she) would hit the red button every time. So now let’s suppose the chimps in this scenario are NFL coaches and the red button is a pass play while the black button is a run play. Now how often do you think that chimp is hitting the red button? Hint: The answer is not all of the freaking time, of course.

The Patriots win over the Jets is proof that running is no completely necessary anymore.

The Patriots win over the Jets is proof that running is no completely necessary anymore.

Balance

Last week, the Patriots beat the Jets 30-23 in a game where they threw the ball 54 times and ran it just 9 times. And as three of those rushes were scrambles, that means they dropped back to throw the ball 90.9% of the time, the most unbalanced approach in the last ten years. Still, with such an unbalanced attack, they managed 6.57 yards per pass attempt, while only 1.78 yards per rush. And even that number is inflated since Brady’s three scrambles are added into that rushing total.

Yes, this is a very extreme example, but the fact is that since the dawn of the forward pass, passing has always yielded a higher yards per attempt than rushing. So why in the Helsinki do coaches ignore the obvious red button in favor of what the talking heads call balance?

Balance is a term the people on TV try to use to make them sound smarter than us. And we buy that stuff by the bushel. They are quick to point to the fact that teams that run the ball more often seem to be winning more often. And what other reason could there be than almighty balance? Maybe it’s because teams who get ahead by a couple scores are trying to run out the clock toward the end of the game, which is easier to do when one runs the ball, whereas the losing team must take the opposite approach. Maybe it’s that concept that inflates that stupid balance statistic.

Flies in the Ointment

I know it’s not that simple. I know that quarterbacks will often audible to a run play when they see a two deep safeties, and so on. A lot of the time, the play call depends on the defensive look. There is another team on the opposite side of the ball handing out those Fudge Stripes. I will not, however, sign off that the run sets up the play-action pass. That’s just another thing those TV people say because they have to.

Play call also depends largely on down and distance, as well as position on the field, though that should all come out in the wash. More complex is that rushing yardage is more predictable than passing yardage. Where the mean yards per pass play is 7, the mode (the most repeated number) is 0. For rushing plays, the mean, median, and mode is 3 or 4. Which means if you need 3 or 4 yards on first down, you may want to run the ball. But who the heck needs 3 or 4 yards?

Also, it stands to figure that the more often you throw the ball, the more often you would turn the ball over. And though you can measure yards against yards, it’s tough to quantify the value of a turnover in yards. HOWEVER, that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case. In the 2014 season, there were 2.61 interceptions thrown for every hundred passes, whereas there were 3.7 fumbles for every 100 rush attempts. Granted, the 2.61 turnovers doesn’t account for receiver fumbles after the catch or sack fumbles (there were 82 total quarterback fumbles lost last season and 14,379 passing attempts, so there could not have been more sack fumbles lost than one in every 175 pass attempts). Yes, these numbers are all a bit confusing, but as I already said, it’s difficult to quantify a turnover into average yardage anyway. Moving on…

Actually, it's kind of amazing how a running back like Marshawn Lynch helped lead a team to a Super Bowl a couple of years ago.

Actually, it’s kind of amazing how a running back like Marshawn Lynch helped lead a team to a Super Bowl a couple of years ago.

The Nash Equilibrium

There is a game theory principle derived by John Nash (Russell Crowe’s character from A Beautiful Mind) that explains all this better than I can. The theory basically says that there is an equilibrium that can be found when two opposing forces use multiple strategies against one another in game play. The application here is that basically, if the NFL followed the rules of applied logic, teams would adjust their run/pass balance until the outcomes were equal, not until the inputs were equal. In other words, who cares how often you run and pass the ball? The number of attempts seems much more arbitrary than the yards per attempt. In game theory, if played out to infinity, the offenses should continue to pass more often until defenses start to defend the pass better, causing the passing yards per attempt to decrease, while the rushing yards per attempt would increase, and then the offenses would readjust and so on, until there was a perfect rush/pass ratio which yielded equal yards per play, regardless of rush or pass. If you want your head to hurt, you can read all about the Nash Equilibrium for the next hour and think about the implications of it concerning football, poker, or traffic for the next week and a half.

But for some reason, it is rare that teams take advantage of the obviously inflated yardage expectation of the forward pass like the Patriots (of course it was the Patriots) did last weekend. And yes, I know every team has strengths and weaknesses, but even the worst yards per pass attempt last season (Raiders – 5.5) was better than the best yards per rush attempt (Seahawks – 5.2). Similarly, the worst rushing defense (Giants – 4.9) still gave up less per play than the best pass defense (Broncos – 5.7). So why don’t coaches jump on this? Is it that old and outdated adage of balance echoing in these people’s heads from a time long buried in ruins? Or is it that equally bull manure time of possession stat that owners hear from Trent Dilfer and Tim Hasselbeck that gives them pause? Or is it that all these NFL coaches are smarter than the best mathematician to ever be the subject of an Oscar-winning biopic?

Or is it maybe that turnover thing and maybe I should just shut up already?

 

Note: All statistics used as examples (yards per attempt, etc.) were taken from the 2014 season from Sporting Charts and Team Rankings.

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Dustin Fisher is a writer, comedian, storyteller, and stay-at-home dad. Follow along with his dad blog at http://daddyneedsanap.com/ or buy his first book, Daddy Issues.

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Dustin Fisher is an amateur standup comedian, storyteller, freelance writer, and stay-at-home dad, all of which are just better ways of saying “unemployed.” He worked in the area of collegiate recreation for the previous 14 years at UMBC, Miami University and the University of Baltimore. There, he became somewhat of a folk legend on the flag football field and actually got paid to play fantasy football. Dustin is currently in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore seeking a Masters degree in Creative Writing. He has made contributions to various publications including The Good Men Project and the Baltimore Fishbowl. For more about Dustin, check out his stay-at-home dad website, Daddy Needs a Nap. Dustin lives with his wife and daughter in New Carrollton, MD in a house surrounded by too many trees to get the Dish Network.

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Comments
2 Responses to “Quick Inside Slant: Week 7”
  1. mom says:

    I hope you are getting paid for all this good work.

  2. I get paid in Personal Achievement Dollars, but thanks for looking out for me, mom. 🙂