Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Four Downs: AFC West

There's a serious need for defensive help in Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Oakland. In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos must determine whether or not Case Keenum can really be a long-term solution at quarterback.

04 Feb 2009

Scramble for the Ball: Why We Do This

by Vince Verhei

Once upon a time, Scramble for the Ball was kind of an intermediary in the football week, recapping the prior Sunday's games and getting you ready for the weekend ahead. With the Super Bowl over and no games to preview, this will not be the usual wacky edition of Scramble for the Ball. We were not told that we did or did not have to write a column this week; in fact, we were asked if we even wanted to. I decided that it would be best to put the season to bed with a final Scramble, looking back at why it is we do what we do.

Being a die-hard NFL fan is not an easy undertaking. For 21 Sundays a year, you're devoted to virtually nothing but the game. Three hours at a minimum, almost always six, and often nine for the Sunday night game. Tack on another hour or two for pre- or postgame shows. (Personally, I never watch pregame shows. I consider Monday through Saturday to be one giant pregame show.) Then there are another three hours on Monday nights, then Thursdays later in the year, and even Saturdays at the end of the regular season. And then the first two weeks of the playoffs, where it's six hours Saturday AND Sunday, before it finally starts to settle down.

Watching TV is one thing. If you go to games live, you might be looking at an even bigger timesink. My cousin is a Seahawks season ticket holder. Like many fans, he lives a couple of hours outside the city his team calls home. To make sure he gets to the stadium in time for a 1 p.m. kickoff, he needs to leave no later than 10 a.m. Then there are three hours of football (or whatever the hell it was the Seahawks were doing this year), then an even longer commute home. When it's all said and done, going to football games can be more work than, well, going to work.

And all that's just watching football. For those of us on this site, it means several hours writing stories, and even more time researching those stories. Does that make us special? Not really, at least not in the amount of time devoted to our projects. If you're reading this site, odds are you spend at least an hour a day managing your fantasy team, or reading other Web sites, or checking Vegas numbers for a friendly, non-monetary wager with a coworker. You stop watching old Super Bowls on NFL Network just long enough to make sure your travel plans for the weekend road game are in place. You're the last person in town who pays money for a newspaper subscription, because you can't start your day without reading what's going on in practice or a preview of the next opponent.

These are the people I am speaking to. The extreme end of the bell curve. The niche market among the niche market. I know a guy who claims to be a huge Giants fan. I say "claims to be" because unless the Giants game is shown on local Seattle TV, he doesn't watch it. He'll go play video games or watch a movie or whatever. But no Sunday Ticket package, no sports bar visits, not even checking the score on a cell phone. Sometimes on Sunday evenings, I will get a text message from this guy asking if the Giants won, and I always think "If you really cared, you would know by now." For this guy, and millions of others like him, being a fan is easy. You see your team a handful of times a year, you watch a couple of playoff games, you go to the best Super Bowl party you can find and call it good.

Not the rest of us. Oh no. We know where we'll be and what we're missing out on each and every week starting in September (or even August, for the extreme end of the extreme end of the bell curve) and ending in early February. For football, we miss church. Birthday parties. Movies. Baseball. The last sunny weekend of the year. The first snowy weekend of the season. Time with the women (or men) in our lives. Time with children or parents. For people like this, being a fan is not easy. It is an ordeal.

So why do we do it? Well, obviously, because watching football is fun, but it's more than that. It's because on any given Sunday, we may see something crazy. Brandon Marshall might catch 18 passes against Denver, and nobody will notice because they're distracted by Ed Hochuli's blown call. Miami might start direct-snapping the ball to Ronnie Brown and end New England's record win streak. Brett Favre may throw six touchdown passes in one game. Tarvaris Jackson may throw four touchdown passes in one game. (Those last two both happened against the Cardinals, by the way.) The Texans may lead the Colts by 17 with less than six minutes to go and still lose. Chicago may score a go-ahead touchdown with 11 seconds to go in Atlanta and still lose. A crappy Seahawks team may upend a Jets squad fighting for their playoff lives in Mike Holmgren's last game in Seattle.

Those are just the surprises we get on any given day. Fanatically throwing yourself into this league is like reading 32 books at once. Buffalo's story opened full of hope and promise, then got more bitter and depressing with each chapter. San Diego's was the opposite, the tale of a team falling shockingly behind early, but persevering and triumphing before eventually falling short. Tennessee's biography was one of many small victories, ending in a powerful and unfair tragedy. Detroit fans got a used copy of Garfield Gets Cookin'.

That covers the teams, but each player has their own story. Michael Turner started out hot and we all waited for him to cool off. Then he put up 208 yards in Week 17. David Garrard started off cold and stayed that way. The defenses in Cleveland and Oakland are not very good, but Shaun Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha are still great, great players. We can decide for ourselves whether we would want Ed Reed over Troy Polamalu, or Larry Fitzgerald over Andre Johnson, or Ryan Clady over Jake Long. We know which quarterbacks make their offensive lines look better than they are (Drew Brees) and which get sacked more than they should (Matt Cassel).

Skipping the regular season and watching the playoffs is like walking into a theater just in time to see King Kong fight biplanes atop the Empire State Building, or Rhett Butler telling Scarlett O'Hara he doesn't give a damn, or Verbal Kint lose his limp and correct his posture. You may be able to figure out what led to the conclusion, but you won't understand what made it so important.

But we know. We understand why the entire story is special, and we feel lucky to have been a part of it. And we'll live happily ever after.

This is the last Scramble I'll be doing for a while, but stay tuned to Football Outsiders. I'll be participating in our usual Four Downs offseason coverage, and I've also got a handful of old Super Bowls on file to review, FO-style. I'll also be updating my blog with notes and podcasts at vinnyv.com.

Keep Choppin' Wood

As those of you who read this week's Audibles know, there were many, many candidates for KCW this week. Given a few days to calm down, we've settled on Ike Taylor, the Steelers cornerback whose personal foul handed the Cardinals 15 free yards as they were driving for a potential go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Just read that sentence again. Has more wood ever been chopped?

Colbert Award

One thing's for sure: This award is NOT going to Mike Tomlin, who kicked field goals on two fourth-and-goal plays, once from the 1 and once from the 3. The kick from the 1-yard line on the game's opening drive was especially timid. So Ken Whisenhunt wins the Colbert Award by virtue of not being Mike Tomlin. We're sure that we'll make up for the whole last-minute Super Bowl loss thing.

Final Playoff Fantasy Standings

The team competition was over long ago. Bill Barnwell destroyed everyone, led by the 91 points of Kurt Warner, and four other players scoring at least 20. The real question was this: Could Larry Fitzgerald, by himself, outscore someone else's entire roster? Fitzgerald's big day in the big game put his postseason totals at 4 games, 30 catches, 546 yards, 18.2 yards per catch, 7 touchdowns, and 95 points.

FO Playoff Fantasy Standings
Rank Player Points
1 Bill Barnwell 229
2 Ned Macey 172
3 Aaron Schatz 135
4 Doug Farrar 113
5 Vince Verhei 97
6 Jason Beattie 91

Yes, Fitzgerald outscored an entire roster -- but at least it wasn't Vince's! Jason Beattie's roster produced just 91 points, led by the 34 of Philip Rivers. (So yes, Fitzgerald beat Team Beattie, and Warner tied them.) Only one "player" on Beattie's roster reached the championship round: the Eagles defense. And we all know how that turned out. You can view the original draft and complete rosters here.

Not surprisingly, no Best of the Rest team could match Barnwell's score. The top finisher was Superbears, who finished with 162 points.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 04 Feb 2009

90 comments, Last at 01 Sep 2010, 8:58am by uggs online


by Bruce (not verified) :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 9:41pm

You've got to be kidding about Tomlin being timid on the fourth and goal. Have you watched the Steelers at ALL this whole year? They were HORRIBLE in short yardage situations all year long! They got absolutely stuffed on first and goal. After a year full of failure in short yardage, kicking the field goal was SMART that early in the game. I sure as heck had NO confidence in the Steelers picking up that fourth and goal.

by Mikey Benny :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 9:55pm

You're absolutely correct. I'm the biggest proponent of going for it on 4th and short in the world, trust me. However, the Steelers had the worst 4th down conversion rate in the NFL. They were 3/12 (25%) converting 4th downs. The next worst team had 38%. Anyone who criticized Tomlin's decision simply didn't know the Steelers, which is excusable; no one can know everything about every team. But really, is a 25% chance at 7 points better than a 99% chance of 3 points? A stop on 4th down would have been a huge downer emotionally, and based on past experience, and how they'd been stuffed on two previous 1-yard plunges, I find it hard to argue with this particular decision.

by jonnyblazin :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 10:27pm

Well, are the Steelers 3/12 at converting 4th and less than a yard? Cause that would be a relevant statistic, not their overall %. I think a QB sneak would have had better than a 50% chance at succeeding, but thats just my opinion. Its not like the Cards have some incredible DT that can't be moved.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 5:00am

Here ya go, for your eyes only... all of the Steelers' 4th down tries this season:

Week 2 (CLE)
Converted - 4th & 1
Failed - 4th & 4

Week 3 (PHI)
Failed - 4th & 10

Week 8 (NYG)
Failed - 4th & 4, 5, 15, 22

Week 10 (IND)
Failed - 4th & 5

Week 11 (SDG)
Failed - 4th & 1

Week 12 (CIN)
Converted - 4th & 1

Week 14 (DAL)
Converted - 4th & 1
Failed - 4th & 1

Divisional Playoffs (SDG)
Failed - 4th & 1

So on the season, including playoffs, Pittsburgh was 3/6 on 4th and 1, 0/7 on all others.

On another note: why so quick to dismiss the psychology of failing on the 4th down try in that situation? I'm an FO regular visitor -- I'm a big believer in stats, but I also know that statistics don't account for the fact that the game is played by people with emotions and psychological mindsets. Those emotions and mindsets affect performance. I usually prefer coaches to go for 4th and short, but I know my mindset as a fan was that a 4th down stop would have been catastrophic for Pittsburgh. Based on a small sample size, you're looking at 50% chance at 7 points and a slight momentum boost (flipside: 50% chance of huge deflating moment for the team on the first drive of the Super Bowl) vs. 99% chance of 3 points. They had first and goal at the 1 and failed 3 times already. Pittsburgh has failed a TON on 4th down this season. This was the rare situation where I think the coach was OK kicking the figgie on 4th-and-1.

Feel free to disagree. I know many of you will.

by BostonHawk (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 9:22am

here's why Tomlin was timid and wrong imho:
if he goes for it, he has a 50% shot at 7, + I'd say a 40% chance at 3. My reasoning is that he has the best D in the NFL so the Steelers should have been able to get the ball back with good field position to kick another FG. There's more than that though: With the successful kick, the Cardinals then receive the kickoff and start from around the 27. This 26 yard gain in field position is worth ~1.5 points or so. I say Tomlin didn't play the odds.

by DGL :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:38am

Let's get analytical and do a decision tree.

Before the fourth and goal from the one yard line, the expected point value of the Steelers' field position was 6. So P(E) = 6.

If they decide to kick the FG, assume they make it with 100% probability (for mathematical simplicity). So actual points - P(A) = 3. Then they kickoff, and assuming an average kick and return, the Cardinals get the ball around their own 30, which is worth 1 expected point for them or -1 for the Steelers. So the total expected point value for the Steelers in kicking the FG, P(E(FG)) = 2.

If they decide to go for the TD, there are two possibilities. If they make it, they get 7 points (again, assuming they make the PAT), they kickoff, the Cards get the ball on their 30 worth one expected point, so the total expected point value of going for it and making it is 7 + (-1), or P(E(TD1)) = 6.

If they don't make the TD, they get 0 points; assume the Cards get the ball inside their own 5 (we'll disregard the possibility of a long sack or interception return, at the risk of disrespecting James Harrison), their expected point value is -1, or a positive expected point value for the Steelers P(E(TD0)) = 1.

So the expected value of going for the TD is the probabilistically-weighted value of those two outcomes: P(E(TD)) = p(make the TD) * 6 + p(fail the TD) * 1.

Algebraically (where's Tanier when you need him?) it follows that Tomlin should go for the TD if p(make) > 0.2, purely on the basis of expected point values. Derivation is left as an exercise to the reader.

Retroactively, we can see that in goal-to-go situations the Steelers got positive yardage on 3 out of 7 plays. You could infer from this that their likelihood of converting on 4-1 was about 40%, although you're in seriously small sample size territory. But it is probably reasonable to assume the Steelers had a better than 20% chance of converting.

As others have pointed out, this disregards the influence of emotion, momentum, and other similar factors. For extra credit, define a utility function to capture the impact of these factors. Please show all work.

As a final exercise, we could look at Whisenhut's decision to punt on 4-20 from the PIT 36 with 3:30 left. Assuming 100% probability of Graham getting a punt downed inside the PIT 5 (the most favorable outcome for ARI), and using the same expected value charts (which disregard the impact of the time remaining in the game), punting was the right decision if Whiz thought his chance of converting 4-20 was less than about 35%. ARI had two plays for over 20 yards in their last two drives (with PIT in the same soft cover-2 they'd likely run on a 4-20), so while sample size is even smaller in this case, it's not like converting was a one in ten longshot.

Looking at it another way, taking time remaining into consideration, if you punt you're counting on your defense to prevent the Steelers from picking up two first downs, or else they win with Warner, Fitz, and Boldin standing on the sidelines. If you go for it you're counting on your offense to make a play and get 20 yards. If you're Whiz, do you think it's more likely that your defense will keep the Steelers from getting two first downs, or that your offense will pick up 20 yards?

Personally, I'd have kept Fitz on the field. But either decision is defensible.

I think Vince would have been better off just saying that neither coach showed Colbertian Ballsiness in the game.

by Temo :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:10am

I wonder how much momentum Arizona would have had starting the super bowl from their own goal line without a very good offensive line.

I wonder how much emotion the Pitt defenders would have had being able to rush Warner standing in his own end zone.

There's no way in hell any team has a <50% chance at converting a QB sneak on with inches to go. That isn't Albert Haynesworth in the middle, that's Alan Branch, Darnell Dockett, and Gabe Watson.

Take off the homer goggles, please.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 12:27pm

Um...Temo, I don't think DGL is a Cards fan. Are there any Cards fan who post here?

by Temo :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:32am

Because if you fail on 4th and inches with a QB sneak, you leave the other team on their own goal line. Which is actually negative expectation for points for the offense.

As for momentum, don't tell me that Pittsburgh's defense (which is absolutely stout against the run) wouldn't have loved to rush Warner on his own 1 yard line. How much momentum is it for Arizona to have to start the super bowl on their own goal line with no running game.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 7:19pm

Not that anyone probably cares, but the Steelers actually failed twice on 4th-and-1 against San Diego in the playoff game, making them 3/7 on 4th and 1 this season. Not even 50%.

by Mikey Benny :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 10:01pm

On another note... I'm curious of the explanation behind the Colbert Award. I assume the award's named after Stephen Colbert? What's it given for, and why's it named after him?

by DGL :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 10:14pm

The Colbert award is for balls, but I would point out that out of seven plays from inside the Cardinals 5, the Steelers got positive yardage on three. I would point out that the two FGs the Steelers got from inside the five gave them six points, and I would remind everyone that the margin of victory in the game was four points.

You can keep your Colbert award - I'll take the win.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 8:36am

I'm sure Ken Whisenhunt doesn't feel that way. He knows better than snubbing the FO-cojones-award in turn for some meaningless silverware and jewelery.

by Temo :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:36am

Evaluating decisions made in a football game based on the outcome of those decisions is absolutely the wrong way to go about it. It's somewhat akin to somebody betting that the outcome of a die roll will come be less than 2, then all of us saying it was the correct bet because the roll happened to come up 1.

I fully understand that the old statistical argument that kicking the ball on 4th and short from anywhere on the opponent's side of the field is not always applicable to real-life football. That said, kicking the ball on 4th and inches on the goal line is retarded. There's no way that keeping the FG there was the correct call.

by zip (not verified) :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 10:36pm

Even if the Steelers had a paltry 25% chance at 4th-and-six-inches, that would mean the other 75% of the time the Cards start on their own six-inch line, so yes, Tomlin still made the wrong decision.

by Israel P. - Jerusalem (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 2:45am

1-1-ARI 1 (11:32) 33-G.Russell left tackle to ARI 5 for -4 yards (94-A.Smith, 52-M.Beisel).

1-5-ARI 5 (4:39) 39-W.Parker right end to ARI 9 for -4 yards (58-K.Dansby, 54-G.Hayes).

3-2-ARI 2 (2:49) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger up the middle to ARI 3 for -1 yards (98-G.Watson).

Well, not quite all the other 75% of the time.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 4:57am

I hold that failing to convert that 4th down would have been catastrophic for Pittsburgh and a huge boost to Arizona. That was my feeling as a fan. Not worth the risk for 1/2 point expected value gain. Statistics are by nature aggregated and generalized. Thus, I think the stats speak for what you should generally do, but they don't speak for every individual situation.

This was one situation where I think you could rightfully justify doing either.

by Temo :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:42am

Well, my arbitrary feeling as a fan is that your arbitrary feeling as a fan is dumb.

I was rooting hard against the Steelers in that game and was overjoyed that they kicked that FG. Just like when the Steelers played my Cowboys, and went for it on 4th and goal, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Yea, and then the steelers failed, the Cowboys (I think) marched for a couple of FDs before the Steeler defense stiffened, then got good field position on the ensuing punt to lead them to a TD.

And by the way, note that this wasn't' even a statistical argument, although that argument is there and very compelling. It's my feeling as a football fan that taking 3 in that situation was absolutely the wrong thing to do.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 12:31pm

Dang...the level of discourse on this site has really gone downhill just since the Superbowl. I haven't heard so much name-calling since I was in Grade 2 -- strike that -- since I last read a Fox Sports comments thread.

by DGL :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 10:42pm

You know, I like Scramble; I get that it's a fun, offbeat, light-hearted take on the game, and that it's not to be taken too seriously.

But honestly, this is the kind of thing that causes fans of some teams to feel put-upon.

Was Taylor's PF -- on a drive that resulted in the Cardinals punting -- worse than Wilson's running into the holder? Taylor moved the Cardinals from their own 36 to the PIT 49; Wilson gave the Steelers a first and goal at the four after their defense had held for three plays on goal-to-go. From an expected value point of view, Wilson's was much worse. From an actual results view, they were a wash - the Cardinals drive ended in a punt even with the penalty; the Steelers drive ended in the same FG that got taken off the board due to the penalty.

Has more wood ever been chopped? Well, how about Warner not reading the zone blitz, not looking off to Edge, and throwing a ball right to Harrison, with the ball on the Steelers one yard line with 18 seconds left in the first half? It doesn't match either the Taylor or the Wilson penalty in terms of abject stupidity, but from a results point of view, it was about a cord and a half.

And while I and others have defended Tomlin's decision-making, had Hartwig not pulled a defensive lineman on top of him, I think we'd be saying something like, "(The Colbert) award is NOT going to Ken Whisenhut, who punted from the Pittsburgh 36 yard line with his team losing 20-14 with three and a half minutes left in the Super Bowl." Perhaps Whiz knew that his defense was primed to stop the Steelers after pinning them deep the same way that Tomlin knew that fourth and short was not the strength of the Steelers' offense. But generally speaking, I don't think the thought process of, "Well, it's a critical situation, let's get Warner, Fitz, and Boldin off the field and get our defense out there" is the path to success for the Cardinals.

I know, I'm a whiny Steelers fan who should just be happy with the SB win. I should just shut up and enjoy it. But statements like the Taylor PF was the single worst error in judgment by a football player ever, and Tomlin kicking a FG was "especially timid", just go to reinforce the perception that certain FO writers will go out of their way to denigrate the Steelers.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 5:18am

Exactly. Whisenhunt punting 36 yards from victory with 3:00 to go in the 4th was leaps and bounds more stupid than kicking a field goal on 4th-and-1 with 10:00 left in the first quarter. I mean, let's be honest here. I don't care if it's 4th-and-63, there's a 50/50 shot that if you punt, you never see the ball again. What was the harm in giving the ball to Pittsburgh at the 36 if Arizona failed? Was he worried about giving up a FG to Pittsburgh? At that point it was irrelevant, because a couple of first downs would have iced the game regardless of field position. Dumb, indefensible move by Whisenhunt. Tomlin's move, though perhaps questionable to some, was defensible.

by Joe T. (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 6:34am

Punting with 3 to go is pretty ballsy if you ask me. And it worked.

by Temo :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:47am

It's funny. You switch around some words in this rant and it's exactly the type of rants that Cowboys fans (like me) have been spewing all year.

By the way, I agree with you about the Ike Taylor play not being KCW-worthy. But Warner's play doesn't count because reading zone blitzes is something that is commonly screwed up and not a result of bone-headedness. The running into the holder and the personal foul plays are the type that are eligible for KCW awards.

I would go with the running-into-the-holder play myself.

by Spielman :: Mon, 02/09/2009 - 10:16am

Oh come ON. After several weeks of FO writers actually getting ANGRY over the Cardinals having the temerity to upset the DVOA applecart, now suddenly they're anti-Steelers? Yikes.

by c_f (not verified) :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 10:54pm

PIT's early FGs: "zip" put it best- even if Ben gets stopped on a sneak, the Cards have the ball at or inside their own 1, and they get to face the Pittsburgh defense, which is the class of the NFL.

Nitpicking: "Brandon Marshall might catch 18 passes against Denver" - is this some obscure inside joke?

by Independent George :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 12:20am

Brandon Marshall might catch 18 passes against Denver

I think that certainly qualifies as 'something crazy'.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 8:39am

... only if he catches 18 McDonalds happy meals, slips in the paper-wrappings and dives headfirst into a TV-set...

by Matt W (not verified) :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 11:01pm

I'm a Steelers fan too, and yeah, Taylor deserves the KCW. Wilson's running into the holder was a bonehead play, but at least he didn't do it on purpose. What Taylor did could have had no upside whatsoever. Plus it took place later in the game, which makes a difference -- KCW is supposed to be awarded for abject stupidity, not for bad consequences. Warner's pick had bad consequences (for him, not for me), but reading the Steelers defense is hard.

I do agree that Tomlin's decision-making was understandable given the fourth-and-short problems was understandable, though I also think there's something to backing the Cards up to the six-inch line on the first drive. (Incidentally, remember when someone was complaining about an announcer saying that the Steelers miss Bettis within the 5, when Bettis was exactly average within the 5 for his career? The announcer is vindicated; the Steelers would love to have an RB who's average from within the 5.) But hey, let's enjoy the win. And props to a Seahawks fan for writing a column about the Steelers without mentioning you-know-what.

by troycapitated p... :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 3:23am

Cary Davis' fumble against the Chargers aside, it's not a back who is average inside the 5 that the Steelers lack, but an offensive line that performs up to average inside the 5. Gary Russell was not to blame when they lost yards on those first downs because defenders were in the backfield as the ball was being handed off.

by Spielman :: Mon, 02/09/2009 - 10:20am

Not to mention, Warner's read was correct for the defense that was called. Had Harrison done what he was supposed to do, touchdown Cardinals. But he read the play perfectly and freelanced. Great player making a great play doesn't mean that the other guy was stupid.

by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 11:04pm

"reinforce the perception that certain FO writers will go out of their way to denigrate the Steelers."
Hey, DGL, fellow Steelers fan here to talk you down off the ledge. We won. It was a great win, following the typical this-year pattern of "it's never easy." So here's the magic phrase that will solve all your problems with FO: "So what?" Even if some FO writers might be anti-Steelers, "So what?" They have their attitude, we have six trophies to admire. Some guys on the message board think that Roethlisberger has no chance of being a hall of fame quarterback. "So what?" He has a couple of super bowl rings and, barring injury, many more years to amass statistics, which he's done pretty well at so far. And even if he doesn't make it, "So what?" Aren't you happy he's playing on your team right now? Some guy looked at 40 pictures trying to make absolutely, positively certain that Holmes got both feet down on the TD catch? "So what?" The referee ruled that he did; the replay official ruled that he did; the official result of the game is that he did. If some guy wants to look at 40 pictures of Holmes' feet instead of 40 pictures of Cardinal cheerleaders, let him do it. See, it's easy. Football Outsiders is fun to read and gives you interesting ideas about the game. If it annoys you sometimes, "So what?"

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 5:18pm

Yip... but it's fun to argue.

by Temo :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:54am

As a Cowboys fan I'll say this: If Troy Aikman is a Hall of Famer, then Ben Roethlisberger sure as hell is a Hall of Famer.

Of course, I don't think Aikman should be either, but oh well.

by Love is like a bottle of gin (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 8:30pm

I think I made one of the strongest cases against Ben on these boards in the past month and all I said he wasn't a hall of famer RIGHT NOW. I said little about him long term other than that he was still young. You fans really need to get your reality goggles back, all you see now is insults against your precious teams.

by Vincent Verhei :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 11:30pm

Wow, was not expecting this level of vitriol.

On Taylor: His play was not the result of a bad read or lack of effort. It was the result of raw stupidity/complete lack of self-control, and there was no upside. Wilson took a bad angle on the field goal, but it's not like he was trying to take out the holder. Warner made a bad read and, by his own admission, never saw Harrison. Warner's play was much more damaging than Taylor's -- much much much much MUUUUUUUUUCH more damaging -- but at least his intentions were pure: He was trying to help his team win. What was Taylor's goal? To give up a first down? And given the stakes -- he was PROTECTING A ONE-SCORE LEAD in the CLOSING MINUTES of the SUPER BOWL -- I stand by my words. He is lucky his teammates bailed him out and forced a punt (and then 8 million other really exciting things happened).

For the record, Harrison's personal foul on the ensuing punt was even stupider, but since that one only cost his team a yard or so, I let it slide.

As for the Colbert award, it's supposed to go to the coach who shows the most balls, usually by going for it on fourth down in a crucial situation. There were only two coaches active this week, and neither ran a play on fourth down. So I went with the guy who turned down the most opportune fourth-down try. If you think Tomlin was right to kick his field goals and Whisenhunt should have gone for it on fourth-and-20, you're welcome to that opinion.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 6:11pm

No vitriol intended, I apologize if I came off that way. Personally, I agree with you on Ike Taylor and disagree with you on Tomlin kicking a FG at the goal line being "especially timid". Taking the sure thing is fine... it's the first quarter of the Super Bowl, you just went 80 yards; you just can't walk away with nothing. It's like "Deal or No Deal" -- why risk $300,000 for a 50/50 shot at a $1,000,000? Sure, the expected value of taking the risk is higher than "the safe way", but it's still stupid; winning the $1,000,000 is of course better than $300,000, but losing the $300,000 would be catastrophic more than the boost to a million would be euphoric. Football is an emotional game, and you have to play on with the psychological ramifications of decisions. You also don't get to average out expected values over the course of a game, since you almost never see 4th-and-goal from the 1 more than once per game. You introduce a lot of variance into single games with decisions like that. I have no problem with risk aversion in such situations, and I have no problem with going for it. It depends on the team, the situation, and how early in the game it is. The earlier it is, the more I'd tend to kick the field goal. Field goals = points. 4th-and-1 from the opponent's 49 is something completely different to me -- I think it's almost invariably stupid to punt in that situation, since punts = change of possession and do not directly give you points.

And if I may say, the first part of your article was awesome!

by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Wed, 02/04/2009 - 11:56pm

Vince, this is not a flame, I'm genuinely curious--where is the vitriol? From Bruce, who said "you've got to be kidding"? From Mikey Benny, who says "I find it hard to argue with this particular decision"? From DGL, who describes his feelings as "put upon," after noting that Scramble is "fun, offbeat, light-hearted"? From Matt W, a Steelers fan who agrees with you? From me, who says "even if some FO writers might (note the choice of words) be anti-Steelers...so what?" and who goes on to praise Football Outsiders as "fun to read and (a website that) gives you interesting information about the game"? OK, I'll concede that I mentioned that FO might "annoy you sometimes." If someone told me that I was occasionally annoying, making them feel put-upon and that I've "got to be kidding" with some assertion I made, while at the same time mentioning that I was fun, offbeat, light-hearted, and interesting, I'd think they had a reasonably accurate, if too narrow, perspective on me. I don't think I'd regard it as a vitriolic attack! I've read some stuff on some of the other threads that would curl your hair, but this just doesn't seem like it reaches anywhere near that level to me. Am I missing something? (Again, this is NOT sarcastic, it's NOT a flame, I honestly want to know if I or one of the other respondents crossed a line.

by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 1:38am

Perhaps "vitriol" was the wrong word. Bitterness? Would that have been better? I just can't believe I have to defend the Ike Taylor pick -- or rather, that anyone would defend Taylor. Steelers fans should be the FIRST to attack Taylor -- his pointless temper tantrum put their Super Bowl title at risk! If I were a Steelers fan, I would have been screaming profanities when Taylor committed his foul. Giving KCW to Taylor isn't knocking the Steelers, and it's not knocking Steelers fans. It's knocking Taylor and Taylor alone, and I think it's the right thing to do.

I think it was this sentence that stands out:

"But statements like the Taylor PF was the single worst error in judgment by a football player ever, and Tomlin kicking a FG was "especially timid", just go to reinforce the perception that certain FO writers will go out of their way to denigrate the Steelers."

1) The single worst error in judgment by a football player is and will always be Michael Vick. If we're limiting it to on-field activity, then I think Taylor's foul is a reasonable choice, for reasons I've already mentioned. But like I said before, that choice does not "denigrate the Steelers." It denigrates Ike Taylor.

2) I did not write that "Tomlin kicking a FG was 'especially timid.'" I wrote that Tomlin kicking a field goal FROM THE 1 was especially timid, meaning MORE TIMID than kicking a field goal from the 3. Which is true, isn't it?

3) I know there's a perception that certain writers will attack the Steelers. I'd like to see that change. But does that mean I'm not allowed to pick Steelers for our silly little "awards" anymore? They're off limits?

by David :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 7:07am

"The single worst error in judgment by a football player is and will always be Michael Vick. If we're limiting it to on-field activity, then I think Taylor's foul is a reasonable choice, for reasons I've already mentioned. But like I said before, that choice does not "denigrate the Steelers." It denigrates Ike Taylor."

I think this shows another interesting corollary to the main thread of the article - what makes the extreme end of the bell-curve special. Part of it is that identification with the team and, in extreme cases, other people.

Steeler fans didn't read the KCW award as a denigration of Ike Taylor - it was a denigration of Ike, which makes it a denigration of the Steelers, which makes a Steelers fan's "choice" of the Steelers as a team to support less worthwhile/defensible which makes the Steeler fan themselves less worthwhile.

(NB - though I shouldn't have to point this out, this applies equally to fans of all teams - the Steelers are just the example from the case in point)

I'm certainly guilty of this - I was rewatching the America's Game coverage of the SB XIX season (niners beating the dolphins), and there was a throwaway comment about the rabidity of the niner fans which brought a warm glow to my heart. Why on earth should the reaction of a random (basically) group of people 5,000 miles and 29 years away from me promote any reaction whatsoever in me - particularly since the only thing I have in common with them is an essentially random decision on what set of colours to support on a Sunday afternoon.

This tribalism is an innately human response and should not necessarily be suppressed, but it's going to be a response that this website is pretty much always going to have to deal with.

by DGL :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:53am

I'll put it another way. Vince, if the Seahawks had won SB XL, and a writer had given some "silly little awards" for poor judgment to Sean Locklear and Mike Holmgren, would you have felt put-upon? Maybe just a little bit?

by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 5:39pm

And here is where I ask the reader if HE is kidding. After the Super Bowl, the city of Seattle tore the Seahawks apart -- the safeties for being out of position and allowing the Steelers the Three Big Plays, Jerramy Stephens (I think I'm spelling his name wrong, but he does not deserve the time it would take to look it up) for dropping everything in sight, Josh Brown for missing field goals, Mike Holmgren for blowing the clock. Yes, the officiating was also attacked, but there was PLENTY of vitriol (and this time I'm sure it's the right word) for the players themselves.

by Jeremy Billones :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:20am

"The single worst error in judgment by a football player is and will always be Michael Vick"

Irrational Vick vs OJ thread, anyone?

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:55am

OJ vs. Vick vs. Plaxico - Now there is your debate...

by Dr. Lest We Forget (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:35am

1) The single worst error in judgment by a football player is and will always be Michael Vick.

I don't think there's enough wood in all the forests in the world for Rae Carruth.

by RowdyRoddyPiper :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 12:09pm

1) I don't disagree that Ike gets the KCW, calling it the dumbest single play by any player ever is a bit of hyperbole though. Let me ask, if the Steelers had converted the Adrian Wilson running into the holder penalty and ensuing fresh set of downs into a TD rather than just getting the same field goal they would have gotten, would that change your opinion of the play? Despite the fact that AW is an FO favorite, I have never seen someone run into the holder before. Taking that bad angle is stupid. Seriously.

2) Okay, you're parsing words in your response. Yes kicking it from the 1 was more timid than kicking it from the 3. It's also more timid than kicking it from the 2. I did want him to go for it, but hey, not the youngest coach ever to win the Superbowl here. Plus it just seems stupid to give an award for ballzyness by default. The Whiz didn't show ballz by punting with with 3:36, down by 6. The issue was not preventing the Steelers from scoring, it was preventing them from getting 2 first downs. Does he have a better shot of accomplishing this if the Steeler's get the ball from the 36 (or wherever they are downed on 4th, assuming they don't convert) or the 1, or the 20 as there's a non-zero probability of a touchback when punting from the 36. It took a great punt and great coverage to pull that off.

3) Well, you are one of the certain writers so you can at least control part of the change. I also think you can pick whomever you like for your awards for whatever reason you choose, just don't be surprised if people disagree with you. Part of giving out these awards entails generating controversy.

by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 6:00pm

1) No. Wilson tried to block the kick, took a bad angle, and smeared the holder. He did not mean to commit a personal foul. Taylor either deliberately meant to commit his foul, or lost all self-control at the most crucial point in the season. All personal fouls are not created equal.

I'll tell you what, if you can find me another personal foul by a defensive player who is defending a one-score lead late in the Super Bowl, I will retract my statement.

2) I'm not parsing words. Here is the exact passage I wrote in the original story:

"This award is NOT going to Mike Tomlin, who kicked field goals on two fourth-and-goal plays, once from the 1 and once from the 3. The kick from the 1-yard line on the game's opening drive was especially timid."

I don't understand how anyone could read that and comprehend anything other than "especially timid compared to kicking from the 3." Honestly, I think Tomlin was right to kick from the 3; going for it from there would have been stupid. But I also think Arizona going for it on fourth-and-20 would have been mind-bogglingly stupid. It is FOURTH-AND-20. Kick the ball.

by RowdyRoddyPiper :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 7:04pm

"This award is NOT going to Mike Tomlin, who kicked field goals on two fourth-and-goal plays, once from the 1 and once from the 3. The kick from the 1-yard line on the game's opening drive was especially timid."

1) Okay, so you think he took a calculated risk that didn't pay off.

2) Okay, and now you're backtracking. You say initially that the award is for kicking two fourth and goal field goals. Now you say that kicking one from the 3 was the right choice. Well, what does he get the award for? The one from the one only? Then why throw in the one from the three? Or the fact that he kicked two field goals in goal to go situations? I just can't tell now.

So at what point in the game, and down by what amount and at what point on the field do you think it makes sense to go for it on 4th and 20?

by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 7:28pm

1) Whisenhunt gets the award because Tomlin kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 when he should have gone for it. Kicking from the 3 was the smart thing to do -- but it was not ballsy. Punting on fourth-and-20 for Arizona was the smart thing to do -- but it was not ballsy. We have here three balls-less decisions, but only one of them I feel was wrong. And of the latter two, I think going for it needing 3 yards is way smarter than going for it needing 20 yards.

2) I would only go for it on fourth-and-20 if the other team could run out the clock with one first down. If it is possible to force a three-and-out and get the ball back with any kind of time remaining, you have to punt.

Look at the DSR stats on the Drive Stats page. Pittsburgh's offense converted first downs 67 percent of the time. Logically, we can then estimate that the Steelers will go three-and-out roughly 33 percent of the time. Pittsburgh would likely be playing ultra-conservative, which would make the odds of a three-and-out higher, but that is balanced by the fact they were playing the Arizona defense, which was not particularly good. So if Arizona had a 30 to 35 percent chance of forcing a three-and-out, those odds have to be better than the odds of Arizona converting on fourth-and-20, don't they?

And if Pittsburgh had gotten a first down? There was 3:34 remaining. Arizona had all three time-outs, and the two-minute warning, and the stop for a change of possession whenever they eventually stopped Pittsburgh. So let's say Pittsburgh takes over and runs three plays for 11 yards and picks up a first down, and Arizona uses all three timeouts. Now there is, say, 3:20 left. Now Pittsburgh REALLY goes conservative. (Had this happened and Tomlin had called a pass play, he would have won the Colbert award for sure.) Run up the gut for 1, clock ticks down to 2:25. Run up the gut for 1, clock hits two-minute warning. Run up the gut for 1, punt with around 1:15 to go, Arizona takes over needing a touchdown with a little more than a minute to go, no timeouts, needing a touchdown, likely needing about 70 yards to go. I still like their chances there better than I do on fourth-and-20.

by RowdyRoddyPiper :: Fri, 02/06/2009 - 12:01am

1) Okay, I guess I think it's bizarre to give an award for being ballsy when no one really made a ballsy call. Whatever, it's your award.

2) So your strategy is to put the game into Mitch Berger's hands? Very interesting. I can understand your logic, I was just thinking of it from the perspective that I'd rather give Fitzgerald a shot to pull out a miracle than depend on the Cardinal's D. Not that they weren't good that game, but you can't just look at how someone is playing in that particular game.

by VarlosZ :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 2:39am

Just to (hopefully) put the "FG from the 1" question to bed:

From a pure Points-Expected-Value perspective (100%*3 vs. x%*7), Pittsburgh only has to score a touchdown from the 1 yard line 43% of the time for going for it to be better; even they should expect to succeed that often. But, as has been mentioned, there's also the value of the field position you gain if you go for it and fail. Wouldn't it be worth, say, 1 point to the Cardinals to receive a kickoff as opposed to having 1st & 10 from their own 1? Probabilistically, then, the FG is only 2 points better than going for it and failing, meaning the Steelers need only to score a touchdown about 29% of the time to make going for it correct.

DGL said: "You can keep your Colbert award - I'll take the win."

We should judge actions based not just on what did happen, but what could have happened.

by troycapitated p... :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 3:35am

I'm a Steeler fan, and I would have gone for it in that situation, too, so I don't really disagree with the arguments stating that going for it was the better choice.

However, I have thought of this possible reason why Tomlin may have chosen to kick, when he had gone for the TD in so many situations before. The Cards offense, like the Patriots and Colts of previous years, puts a lot of pressure on opponents to score points. Obviously settling for 3 too often is not likely to be a winning choice either, but perhaps he felt you can't risk coming away with zero, even with their defense. Even if you hold and force them to punt, what if you go 3 and out on the next drive and are outside of FG range?

Anyway, as I said, I would have gone for it. There certainly seems to be something to the argument that, particularly given the fact that if you failed the Cards would be starting their very first offensive possession inside their own 1, you might like the chance that nerves would cause a mistake. As it happens, the Cards did have a lot of troubles keeping a grip on the ball in the early going. How many kickoffs did they actually field cleanly in the whole game? It seemed like they had trouble on about half of them.

by AlanSP (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:03am

I posted some of this on the John Madden thread, but it's relevant here.

Wouldn't it be worth, say, 1 point to the Cardinals to receive a kickoff as opposed to having 1st & 10 from their own 1?

Based on the data in this paper by economist David Romer, it's actually worth about 2.2 points. On average, receiving getting the ball at your own 1 is worth about -1.6 points and receiving a kickoff is worth 0.6 points. This means that missing the conversion attempt isn't actually that much worse than getting the field goal. You stand to gain 4 points if you succeed, and stand to lose less than a point if you fail (once you account for field position), and the odds on 4th and inches are in the offense's favor. Early in the game, I think it's definitely a mistake not to go for it.

For reference, Pittsburgh's power success this year was 64%, and the league low was 52%, while Arizona's defense gave up 70%, and the league best was 53%. In fact only 3 offenses in the DVOA era had a power success less that 43% (DET '06-38%, ARI '05-41%, and TB '02-42%), and only 2 defenses have held opponents under that mark (TEN '00-37% and BUF '04-42%). Granted, success rates are likely lower at the goal line than elsewhere on the field, so this might overestimate the likelihood of making it, but also keep in mind that 4th and inches probably has a higher conversion rate than the aggregate "3rd or 4th and <=2" data used for the power stat.

by Mr Shush :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 4:28am

I would guess that receiving a kickoff is probably more than a point better than starting on your own 1 - especially when you have a lousy running game and are facing a great defense. I'd say it was probably closer to 2, which means that from the 1 a sneak only needs a 20% chance of succeeding to be the right call. You have to go for it. The call from the 3 yard line seems to me far less clear cut, and probably needs to be a pass - or perhaps something wacky like an Alex Smith-style unblocked PA QB sweep (still the sweetest play I've ever seen) - if you're going to go for it at all.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 8:46am

"I've also got a handful of old Super Bowls on file to review"

Have you already done some of these? I'm fairly new here, so could you (or someone, really) link to these? You know... offseason... need entertainment..

by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 5:22pm

No, I haven't done any yet. Look for one by the end of the month.

by Bruce (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:03am

I have no problems with Taylor getting the KCW. Absolutely idiotic play.

I still have problems with using the word "timid" to describe Tomlin's decision. There is such a thing as being "safe" to the point of being "timid." But there is also such a thing as being "bold" to the point of being "dumb."

Would it have been ballsy for Tomlin to go for it on fourth and one? Yes, considering that their offensive line was so pathetic all year in short yardage situations. Let's put it this way, it would've been more ballsy for Tomlin to go for it on fourth and inches from the goal line than for Bill Cowher to go for it with the 2005 Steeler team. How much balls does it take to go for it on four and inches when you're running behind Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca with Jerome Bettis running the ball? It would've taken a lot more balls to run with Gary Russell behind Justin Hartwig and Chris Kemoeatu. It also would've been stupid. They would've been stuffed just like they were on first down. Remember too when they tried to run the ball out of their own endzone late in the game? Parker barely got the ball out of the endzone. Now do I know for sure he would've been stuffed? No. But like I said, I had no confidence whatsoever he would've made it. So kick the field goal.

Also, let's assume for a minute he got stuffed and didn't make it and the Cardinals take over. Until the Steelers scored on the final drive, they did nothing after their first two drives. So what would've happened in a best case situation? The Cardinals punt, the Steelers score a touchdown, and don't score again until the Harrison pick. Meaning that the Steelers are up 14-7 instead of 17-7. Again, Tomlin made the right choice. The only way things come out better is if the Steelers actually scored a touchdown on fourth down, and I don't think they would've done it.

As for going for it on fourth and goal from the three, I know of no coach who, with a number one defense that was shutting down the Cardinal offense to that point, would've hesitated a second to make the Cardinals score two touchdowns by kicking the field goal, instead of taking the chance of not making it and still only being up by ten. If someone can point out a situation where even Belichick did that, I'd be surprised. Ballsy to go for it? Yes. Stupid? Definitely. Did Tomlin make safe choices? Yes. Was he timid? No, he was smart.

by Danish Denver-Fan :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:14am

I'm quite a novice, but it seems to me that the "number-one-defense"-thing is invalid. I mean it's also the number-one-defense on the 3-yard-line. Nitpicking, i know.

by Matt W (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:51am

"How much balls does it take to go for it on four and inches when you're running behind Jeff Hartings and Alan Faneca with Jerome Bettis running the ball?"

Especially because Bettis hadn't fumbled all season -- what was he going to do, lose the ball and almost have it run back for six?

Seriously, good post; in 2005 the odds of that happening were low, and this year the odds of not converting were a lot higher. Though on balance, I still think Tomlin should've gone for it; balancing the Steelers' bad goal-line O, their defense would've been especially likely to make something good happen, if only an ARI punt out of their end zone.

by ernie cohen (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:26am

The main reason for the Steelers' failures on 3rd/4th and 1 is their stubborn refusal to sneak the ball. They sort of have an excuse - a sneak early in the season resulted in Roethlisberger injuring his shoulder - but the trap-blocking tradition built into the PIT DNA seems to compel them to run slow developing plays in such situations no matter how often they get stufed by gap-shooting defenders.

by Anonimous (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:52am

Normally this season I was happy to go for it on 4th and goal at the 1 and get stuffed, which happened every time except against the Bengals (who, unfortunately, was not our superbowl opponent),

for the reason many have pointed to: worst case scenario, the other team is stuck inside their own one, and our D makes that rough.

But not so much against the Cards. They really look like a team that's built for that situation: an offense built around a QB who gets rid of the football right away every play and receivers who are open even when they're double covered perfectly.

I would have just as soon have punted in that 4th-and-goal from the one as go for it. Getting stuffed, as we were sure to do, would have been a major confidence boost for Arizona while a big kick in the nuts to the players in B&G.

The second time we were in that situation, I also wanted the FG: it pushed us past the magical 11-point lead mark, guaranteeing eventual Steeler victory.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 12:07pm

Exactly my point. Well said. The 2.2 "expected point differential" to me would have been more than made up by -2.2 expected point differential caused by the psychology of the players the rest of the game. I know this site exists to debunk ideas such as "momentum". I think statistical analysis is valuable and I think DVOA is a great stat. I simply think you can't kill a guy when he goes with his gut in a defensible decision. Just my opinion.

by DoubleB (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 1:17pm

I don't think this site debunks a concept such as "momentum." I think it debunks quotes like this: "the 2.2 "expected point differential" to me would have been more than made up by -2.2 expected point differential caused by the psychology of the players the rest of the game."

What "psychology of the players" are you talking about and what are you basing this on? There are 55 minutes left in the game. There are, most likely, going to be other "momentum" shifts. Hell, I'd argue Tomlin is basically telling his offensive line by not going for it that "you guys suck ass." The "psychology" argument works both ways.

And how do you know Tomlin went with his "gut"? For all we know he didn't want to be criticized if they didn't make it and because of that fact made the clearly wrong decision. What if Pittsburgh hadn't scored at the end? Would you still think it was the right decision?

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 5:54pm

People asked me at the Super Bowl party, "What do you do if they stop him at the 1?" I said, "Not a question in my mind; kick the field goal. The Steelers suck rocks at the goal line." Had the Steelers lost by 4, of course I would have "wished" he went for it in hindsight (duh), but I wouldn't have said it was the wrong decision. If you agree with a decision when it's made, it's hypocritical to criticise the decision maker if it ends up not working out. But it happens in corporate America all the time ;)

by AlanSP (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 4:29pm

Romer addresses this in the paper on page 24 (the section titled "momentum"). If you look at what happens after plays that are supposedly psychologically damaging (failed 4th down attempts, turnovers, missed FGs etc.), teams do no differently than they do otherwise. That is, defenses perform about the same at a given yard line regardless of how their opponent got the ball. So no, there's no evidence of a measurable psychological effect here.

I have no idea what Tomlin's "gut" was telling him. Two weeks earlier he (correctly) went for a 4th and goal try against San Diego and failed. Maybe his gut is gun shy. It's entirely appropriate to criticize coaches for overly conservative decisions; if anything there's far too little of this in the sports world. Coaches get killed for risky decisions, even if the decisions are good ones, and they get totally let off the hook for overly conservative decisions.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 7:30pm

I really have doubts about that, because I've done academic research, and I have no clue how you could accurately measure such a thing. I mean, situations are different. Some situations a missed 4th down may not be deflating... sometimes it might inspire the defense to hold after the failure, sometimes it might kill a team. All in all, t would wash out. All I can speak to is that I have also played team sports, and know that you don't play the same when you've been figuratively punched in the gut.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 7:30pm

I really have doubts about that, because I've done academic research, and I have no clue how you could accurately measure such a thing. I mean, situations are different. Some situations a missed 4th down may not be deflating... sometimes it might inspire the defense to hold after the failure, sometimes it might kill a team. All in all, it would wash out. All I can speak to is that I have also played team sports, and know that you don't play the same when you've been figuratively punched in the gut.

by AlanSP (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 8:51pm

You could read the paper if you want to know more about the methodology. At any rate, if you're saying that a missed 4th down try could hurt or inspire a defense in unpredictable ways, then doesn't that undermine your argument for kicking the field goal? What makes you think this would be a figurative punch in the gut instead of an inspiration?

by The Blow Leprechaun (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:54am

Not trying to start a flame war or troll or anything, I'm genuinely curious about this - it seems like every time I watch the Steelers (which is not often), Ike Taylor does something to screw up. Am I just catching him at bad times? If not, why is he still starting?

Again, I am genuinely curious... I don't watch the Steelers often enough to know if I just have the wrong impression of the guy.

by Temo :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:56am

He does gamble a lot. But he does make plays an awful lot as well.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 12:11pm

He also had the game-winning TAINT against Dallas this year. Wow, Pittsburgh's had a lot of TAINTS this year (which may point to a decline in the Steelers next year -- they won a number of games on TAINTS and punt returns this year, which is not repeatable). Ike Taylor's a pretty solid corner that sometimes does things you wish he didn't. But he's a lot better than just about all of the corners Pittsburgh's had in the past 20 years not named Rod Woodson. He's not given up many big plays this year at all.

by LittleNeddyKnickers (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 2:59pm

That was DeShea Townsend.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 6:05pm

Doh. You're right.

by Possuum (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:32am

I find it funny that people are up in arms over the Colbert award. The point of the award isn't about intelligent decisions. It's about bold decisions. Like a man tattooing the american flag to his face. Or giving the middle finger to a group of amputee war vets who dare question the decisions of the Veteran's Appeals Board. Or lying to Congress about secret presidential orders to kill those pinko pre-schoolers.

The winner of the Colbert Award doesn't look at decision trees and wonder if px(success rate) + px(failure rate) > field goal. He urinates on the them and then uses them to wipe himself. Did he just put his hand in his own urine? Maybe. But that's not the point. He takes action. He puts the ball in the hands of football players, not on the feet of washed up soccer players. If an assistant mentions the down and distance, he punches them in the face, and if its on the largest, most decadent stage Western civilization has now, then all the better.

In this case, I think both coaches showed a lack of testicular fortitude. I think Tomlin showed the least however because if he goes for it, not only does he get to show Steeler football at its greatest by going for a Franco Harris power run, if he fails, he gets to show Steeler football at its greatest by watching Kurt Warner get brutally eviscerated (that is to remove the entrails of, disembowel - dictionary.com) by James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and the ghosts of Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, and Jack Ham. Whisenhunt at least could say that he was giving his defense a chance to embarass the other team by getting a safety.

by justme_cd :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 6:18pm


And Vince, I laughed for like 5 minutes straight at the used book Detroit fans got. Perhaps not for the quality of the joke and maybe just because making fun of the Raiders and Lions is my favorite, but still... good stuff.

by DoubleB (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:41am

I'm surprised this is even up for debate. Many administrative coaching decisions (punting, going for it, etc.) are pretty close decisions that are dependent on personnel and team strengths and weaknesses. Tomlin's decision to kick from the 1-foot line was terrible, even if you account for the Steelers' "struggles" on short yardage this year. I have to believe he left at least one expected point or maybe even as much as two on the table in that situation. It was about as clearcut as you're going to get and he chose wrongly.

Whisenhunt had 3 choices with 3:30 left and all of them sucked. Punt, go for it on 4th and 20, or kick a 53 yard FG. You may disagree with the decision to punt, but the difference in expected values in those choices is so small as to make the decision a more difficult one.

by imafreak (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 12:34pm

Many posters are suggesting Tomlin have Ben sneak. I agree this would seem to be the best choice. However, for whatever reason (exposure to injury, already hurt on one sneak) the Steelers rarely called the QB sneak. Let us assume for the moment that Tomlin had no intention of calling a sneak, for legitimate but unknown reasons. Does anyone have any confidence in Russell making it? Madden had such little confidence in Russell that on a later 3rd and goal from the 1 he said the Steelers "had to pass." Of course, they ran and made it easily.

I thought the play was to go for it and have Ben sneak. I was not outraged (as I may normally have been) that they kicked.

by Sergio :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 1:38pm

Well, I don't give a flying fuck (you can switch that to 'freak' or something if you wish) about nitpicking who gets what award.

I just have to say, that writeup about us fans was amazing. And sometimes, particularly here in Mexico, I feel like I'm the only one with that kind of commitment (lunacy?) for football. It's pretty comforting to know we are many, and proud of it.

Can't wait for kickoff 2010!!!

-- Go Phins!

by Telamon at work (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 2:09pm

I agree completely. Everyone seems to have missed the fact that this was a great article because of the peripheral flame war.

by E :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 3:19pm

I agree as well, and I think it's worth adding: obviously Vince was upset by some of the comments, as evidenced by his response above. We all really enjoy reading this (free) site - otherwise we wouldn't be here commenting. So VV writes a great column and all people can do is b*tch about a few throwaway "awards" that make up less than 10% of the column (and that in any event are certainly defensible, even if you disagree with them). What positive effect can this have? The only possible effect I can see is that we tick off the writers enough that they stop writing.

I'm not saying that FO is above criticism or that the comments section is the wrong place for it. But (1) critism should be constructive, or it's pointless and even detrimental and (2) there's nothing wrong with also complimenting a writer, constructively letting him know what you did like (like the first 90% of this column, at a minimum).

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 7:34pm

Dude, chill out :) this is a DISCUSSION board, and we're allowed to disagree with the writer. Otherwise, what would we have to write each other about? He should take the fact we care enough to disagree with him intelligently as a compliment to his writing. The insult would be if no one cared enough to reply.

by DestenDennard :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 3:42pm

Great article Vince. You, Ben and Jason made this season even more fun in my opinion.

by Mikey Benny :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 7:35pm


by DestenDennard :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 3:42pm

Great article Vince. You, Ben and Jason made this season even more fun in my opinion.

by Nathand (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 4:51pm

"The single worst error in judgment by a football player is and will always be Michael Vick. If we're limiting it to on-field activity, then I think Taylor's foul is a reasonable choice, for reasons I've already mentioned. But like I said before, that choice does not "denigrate the Steelers." It denigrates Ike Taylor."

If we're limiting it to off-the-field incidents while an active NFL player, I'm pretty sure Rae Carruth takes the cake. He makes Vick look like a choir boy.

No arguments about Taylor, though - that was an astoundingly stupid thing to do.

And congrats to the Steelers, even though as a Cowboys fan I was pulling against you.

by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 5:31pm

Ooh. Good point about Carruth. Vick springs to mind first because he was more famous and his story was more sensational, and he fell from a higher peak. But he didn't pay anyone to murder his girlfriend, so he's got that going for him.

by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Thu, 02/05/2009 - 5:10pm

Vince, you're right. "Vitriol" was way too strong a term. Now that things have evidently calmed down, some of my fellow Steelers fans need to recognize that awards called "Keep Chopping Wood" and "Colbert" (for the reasons they are called that) are supposed to be entertaining (here's where the "fun, offbeat, light-hearted" that DGL mentioned comes in) and don't represent an eternal condemnation of a player's contributions to his team. And that, if you ask Ike Taylor today, he'd probably admit that he did a stupid thing.

by superbears (not verified) :: Sat, 02/07/2009 - 9:55am

Well being the best of the rest is better than nothing.

by machi (not verified) :: Sat, 02/07/2009 - 4:25pm

I would have to agree with the Colbert award choice (particularly in hindsight). (disclaimer: I am assuming, for the purpose of simplification, that the rest of the game plays out the same, since in any case, the same amount of time is run off the clock, regardless of choice) Consider: a) Steelers attempt field goal from 1 and score, wining by 4 b) Steelers attempt field goal from 1 and miss, winning by 1. c) Steelers attempt touchdown from 1 and score, winning by at least 7. d) Steelers attempt touchdown from the 1 ad miss, winning by 1.

In every scenario, the Steelers win. Some might argue that momentum would change, but this is a load of *feces*. On the last Steelers drive, they were down by three. Had they missed the field goal, they would have been down by 6. In either case, they would be playing for the win. One must believe that Tomlin would have been loath to attempt a field goal to tie on a drive that could mean a win. The only possible *shift* in momentum would be like thus: The Cards relax a LITTLE BIT more than they would otherwise (because they know Pittsburgh isn't playing for a field goal (this as known as Charlie's law: The bigger the lead, by score value, the more "relaxed" a defense will be)), while the Steelers play with more urgency. Since this is the Super Bowl, we can assume that both teams, especially the Steelers, will respond positively to the pressure.

Fourth downs are game makers. Since their were only three significant fourth downs, the analysis that Tomlin's decision is the most "ball-less" is correct. Further, since "ball-lessness" is the antithesis of Stephen Colbert, this must, of necessity, be awarded to who doesn't demonstrate such ball-lessness.

by Michael Turton (not verified) :: Mon, 07/27/2009 - 10:09am

As a lifelong Browns fan, I can only say that we do this because we reproduce our social identities through identification with local football teams, each time we watch.

But that's not important. Got a statistical question for FO: Our new coach, The Mangenius, has a 23-26 lifetime record. What are the odds that a coach hired with 50 or more games right around .500 goes on to become a winning coach with his new team?

Michael Turton

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