A weekly look at under-the-radar items from the world of sports, with an emphasis on statistics, analytics, and videos, featuring the occasional rant.
Coming off of three straight shutouts, Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines were looking to make a statement against little brother-turned-bully Michigan St., who had captured the Paul Bunyan Trophy (is there a full time to job to name these things?) in six of the last seven meetings between the two in-state rivals. For most of the game last Saturday afternoon in the Big House, it looked like the Maize and Blue were poised to do just that. Michigan put the first points on the board with an early second quarter touchdown and never trailed throughout the game, leading up to a 4th down and 2 on the MSU 47-yard line with ten seconds left on the clock. What followed was one of the crazier endings you’ll ever see, with a fumbled snap on the punt attempt, which Michigan St.’s Jalen Watts-Jackson (who actually sustained a season-ending hip injury in the act of scoring) scooped up and returned for a game-ending touchdown, giving State its first lead of the game with 00:00 left on the clock.
The fumble and score obviously caused a huge swing in win probability, plunging Michigan from 99.8% down to 0% in those last ten seconds. My question is: should they ever have been in the position for that to happen in the first place?
Let’s walk quickly through the possible options Michigan had at that point. They could punt (the option they attempted to chose), they could run the ball, or they could pass. Note: I do not have any numerical or statistical analysis backing up the relative virtues of these options. These are just my general musings. The Wolverines had two principal objectives up two with ten seconds remaining: burn as much time as possible, and if giving the ball back to the Spartans, put them in the hardest possible position to attempt to score. Here are how the three options stack up:
Punting carries the fairly small risk of a botched snap (duh, in hindsight) or a block, both of which have a very good chance at being returned for a touchdown if they occur. Assuming the ball is punted both successfully and either through the end zone or out of bounds to eliminate a return chance, the Spartans would have received the ball at approximately their own 25-yard line with six seconds to operate. Since I don’t think that’s enough time to complete a ball down the field far enough to get into field goal range and then kick it with time remaining, that would mean needing a 75-yard touchdown for the win. This is the safe, conservative decision, and the one I assume most coaches would opt for (ignoring Brady Hoke’s slightly bitter second-guessing).
Running the ball can go two different ways. Pick up two yards and you’ve iced the game. Get stuffed, and Michigan St gets the ball again with around six seconds, but this time only fifteen or twenty yards outside of field goal range. I think a fumble here is a little more likely than in the punting scenario, but, assuming you run the ball up the gut, feels less likely to be potentially returned for a touchdown (of course, ask Chiefs fans how the end of their Week 2 game with the Broncos went). In fact, a fumble into the pile in this situation is not so different from the turnover-on-downs that is otherwise generated from being stuffed.
Throwing in this situation is the most outlandish of the three options, but I think it’s actually my favorite. It carries the most risk of the three options, in between a possible blindside strip sack or a returnable interception, but in calling this play, it should be accompanied with a big, flashing warning sign for the quarterback that reads, “If you feel at all uncomfortable or insecure during the course of the play, THROW THE BALL AWAY!!!!” The upside here intrigues me, though. I’d run the play from the shotgun, probably as a bootleg, shifting the whole offensive line. Doing this avoids the potential for intentional grounding, helps neutralize the pass rush, and most importantly burns time. Much like Sam Koch’s intentional safety in the 2013 Super Bowl, the goal is to burn clock. As the quarterback approaches the sideline, if he sees an open receiver, he can throw for a first down and seal the win. If he is under pressure, he can throw the ball away. The turnover on downs stops the clock anyway, so there’s no extra clock harm due to the incompletion. And no matter what, hopefully he can dance around long enough to milk the clock close to zero. Getting it down to even three or four seconds would prevent a possible field goal attempt and only leave time for one desperate Hail Mary, neutralizing what would normally be very good field position for Michigan State. It’s obviously risky, and Harbaugh would have taken tons of heat had he tried this option and lost the game. And I think the decision to punt is completely defensible, and that sometimes, mistakes just happen (sorry Michigan fans, I know that isn’t comforting in the slightest). But imagine if Michigan would’ve called a pass play instead. That would’ve been fun.
Confession: I am an NFL apologist. I am not particularly proud of this. It usually leaves me on the moral low ground. But that’s who I am. I defend Roger Goodell. I ignore how dangerous football is. I watch NFL games every Sunday. Why? I defend Goodell because when the whole of the Internet joins together in one outrage-filled hot take, I usually look for the other side of the argument. Goodell is often bumbling and incompetent, but instead of viewing his job as “Keeper of the Best Interests of the Game,” if you think of his title as “Head of the NFL Owners Association,” which is a truer description of Goodell’s role than Commissioner, then his actions make more sense. He acts as the ultimate scapegoat and absorbs all the attention away from the thirty-two owners, his employers. I’m not saying there aren’t better ways to act in that role (Adam Silver operates with way more class, intelligence, and, frankly, integrity), but the league’s profits continue to grow, and in that regard, you can begin to justify his absurd salary and asinine personal conduct decisions.
As for the rest of the NFL’s issues, I am not alone in rationalizing my love for football. Anyone who watches the league and loves the product does this. We turn a blind eye to the dangers that players, without guaranteed salaries like their counterparts in the other major sports, take on every time they step on the field. A combination of “ignorance is bliss” and “out of sight, out of mind” allows us to enjoy the game, even as our entertainers risk their long-term physical and mental health. In reality, we are all NFL apologists.
The past couple weeks have highlighted one set of NFL decisions that has left me baffled, however. Two different Pittsburgh Steelers (a group for which I have, to put it mildly and politely, a healthy disdain), have been shut down by the NFL in their attempts to honor cancer victims on the field. Cam Heyward was fined two weeks in a row for wearing eye black with the words “Iron” and “Head” written on it to honor his father, Ironhead Heyward, who passed away from cancer in 2006. Heyward and the NFL have reportedly now settled the issue, but the fact that this was a finable uniform violation in the first place makes little sense to me.
The second instance of NFL inanity involves DeAngelo Williams, who wants to wear pink all season to honor his mother, a 2014 breast cancer victim. The NFL turned him down, however, stating that there are no exceptions to the uniform policy. I guess the NFL only supports the fight against breast cancer during the month of October. Wearing pink cleats on November 1st is clearly a major violation of the integrity of the game- a slippery slope that would lead to a cacophony of unsightly uniform violations.
Come on, NFL. I get that you want to sell gear and keep the look on the field clean, but for once, use your heads (but not to tackle). With all the negative attention the league has gotten recently over concussions and domestic violence, adding stodgy, heartless, cancer-insensitiveness to the list is just not a good look.
It’s Daniel Murphy’s world and we’re all just living in it. Congratulations to Murphy and the Mets on sweeping the Cubbies in the NLCS. Check out a rundown of all the crazy records that came out of the series and these two teams (all figures from ESPN):
- Daniel Murphy is the first player to hit a home run in 6 straight postseason games
- Murphy broke Chase Utley’s record for most home runs by a second baseman in a single postseason
- Murphy has tied the Mets playoff record with 16 hits in a single postseason (and has more hits than swings-and-misses) and already holds the record for most home runs (7)
- Kyle Schwarber also set a Cubs franchise record for home runs in a postseason with 5 dingers
- Mets pitchers held the Cubs to a .164 batting average, the lowest in NLCS history
- The Mets are the first team to sweep a team (4-0) in a playoff series after being swept by that same team (0-7) in the regular season
- Finally, the ageless Bartolo Colon went 14 years and 12 days in between postseason wins, the longest gap in MLB history
Looking to hang with the undefeated New England Patriots Sunday night, the Indianapolis Colts ran one of the most bizarre plays ever seen on an NFL field. Many this week have dubbed it the worst play in NFL history, and while I don’t even think it was the worst play run against the Patriots (Butt Fumble anyone?!), it was certainly pretty embarrassing. Backup wide receiver Griff Whalen, who wasn’t even supposed to be the center on the play and hadn’t practiced it, snapped the ball to safety Colt Anderson, who was immediately smothered by four Patriots defenders, giving New England the ball on Indy’s side of the field. The rest of the offensive line, hanging out in an illegal formation on the other side of the field with punter Pat McAfee chilling fifteen yards behind them, could only helplessly look on. Indianapolis ended up losing by seven after a late backdoor cover, and New England continued its annual march to a first round bye.
So what the hell happened? Numerous reports have come out about why the play occurred, including a firsthand account from McAfee, much to the chagrin of head coach Chuck Pagano. It sounds like the key participants in the play weren’t the ones who had practiced it and didn’t realize that they were never supposed to snap the ball. Just a giant cluster-mess.
As I’ve already written previously, I’m a huge fan of aggressive play-calling on fourth down, and especially so for underdogs. After all, there’s nothing better than trying to give Bill Belichick a dose of his own medicine. And I’m not inherently opposed to the idea of fake punts and other trickery. Fakes make the game more fun. But, in the context of making aggressive decisions, coaches also need to call good plays. It only makes sense to go for it if you dial up high-percentage plays. So keep going for it Chuck Pagano. Just next time, maybe give the ball to Frank Gore.
One more shout out to Bartolo Colon, who got the Win in Game 4. This guy is old enough that he pitched for the Montreal Expos and has been in the Majors since 1997, and now after 18 MLB Season is finally headed to the big dance. He entertains every time he comes to the plate, and certainly off the field too. Watch him celebrate the Mets’ NLCS victory by helping a cameraman “hydrate.” Eventually Colon will have to retire (I think), but for now, just enjoy the ride.
Happy Friday everyone.
By Mickey Katz