On Elusive Victory: Misapplied Data Models or Overlooked Variables?

 

 

Say not what you think I need to hear,
say not what your investors demand
when they come near the Sunday night lights
swept up in the pomp and circumstance
of TV cameras, confident linemen
and a house filled with brand enthusiasts.

Say not what you think I need to believe,
say not what your supporters soak up
when they wipe the sweat off the brow
of your best quarterback,
so enamored and honored to have been asked.

Say not what everyone has been saying to themselves,
instead, tell us you could bother
to dig and pry loose old fears and older tears.

Find the magic in the snap,
in the complete pass forty yards down the field,
manifested by instinct,
guaranteed with heart —
not algorithms and data charts,
things that might as well
be used for selling luxury cars.

— yiqi 3 may 2016 8:12 pm

The above poem was inspired by the comments on this AJC piece featuring quotes from Arthur Blank and his belief in the success of the Falcons for the 2016 season.

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When I bring up the reason why I haven’t watched any televised football, specifically the Atlanta Falcons, for a few a consecutive years, I am met with a lot of nodding heads and suggestions to watch televised NBA or college football.  And then someone asks, rhetorically or not, why the Falcons can’t make it to and through the playoffs to play in the Super Bowl?  I hadn’t thought about the why of it until recently.  It’s a good question.

How is it that decision-makers, scouts, and other persons responsible for identifying, attracting, and cultivating a winning team haven’t been able to reap the fruit of their recruiting labor?  A businessman who has ostensibly known more success than setbacks shouldn’t have to keep pining for the ultimate fruit of applied data analysis.  Why do some teams get to live a sports inspirational redemption narrative while other teams are stuck in tale of Sisyphus forever rolling a rock up the same hill over and over again?  Why is it that applying data models can effect positive change in pure athletic performance for an individual player but not the whole team or more effectively in baseball than football?

The first question I’d address is if there are overlooked variables that have nothing to do with batting averages, 40 yard dash time, or past performance patterns.  I shan’t pretend to possess a deep knowledge of statistical factors (other than that they exist and inform choices of who is drafted, benched, or cut) or microscopic-level details of the biological machinery that is a well-oiled, well-practiced football team.  I imagine there are aspects that breathe and permeate through the interpersonal dynamics of a competitive sports team that remain unseen and unknown to the outside — even in this day and age of hyper-drive experiential exhibitionism and voyeurism.

Putting together a consistently triumphant team isn’t necessarily the same as a harmonious team.  Just because everyone can play better than all of their college teammates combined, doesn’t mean they will play nice with each other.  I realize that finalizing the roster may result from imperatives beyond the actual game-play (contracts, monetary constraints, leveraging a multitude of components for current and future seasons).  I am also keenly aware that the rules of athletic engagement facilitate and demand their own momentum, energy, and parameters of prospering/failing.

To score points in baseball, a series of actions must take place: the batter must hit the ball such that he and/or his teammates can run the bases back to home plate without the other team getting them out.  In other words, don’t get struck out and successfully run/steal the bases.  Whichever team has the highest number of runs at the end of nine innings is the winner.  To score points in football, a series of actions (outcomes) must happen: the offensive player must carry into or catch the ball in the end zone, kick the ball through the uprights, or both.  Two additional points are awarded if the offense can get the ball into the end zone after a touchdown (rather than kicking for an extra point).  Again, whichever team has the highest number of TDs or field goals at the end of the fourth quarter is the winner.

Taking into account the ways in which each team attempts to prevent the other team from scoring, victory is not as simple as going through the offensive motions, executed brilliantly or not.  In baseball, the pitcher can strike out one or more batters before any of them have a chance to jog to first base.  He can also get a base-stealer out who is one or two steps too slow.  In football, the other team’s defense can intercept the quarterback’s pass, sack him before he has a chance to look up, tackle the running backs, wide receivers, or block a field goal.

Of course, there’s game-play strategy, encompassing the strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies of one’s own team and those of the opponent.  Once you’ve controlled for performance stats, franchise mythology, self-esteem/motivation issues of individual players or teams as a whole, the game-play itself is left.*  The primary text holds epistemological insights.

Visualize the various baseball players and what they may or may not do over twenty minutes.  It’s reasonable to assert that the pitcher’s attention must be on one to three places at a time: the catcher, the batter/home plate and any other runner trying to steal a base.  Other than the base-stealer(s), his targets are pretty stationary.  The pitcher may have to keep second or third base within instinctual sights, but those runners from the other team are not running at him.  Neither the infielders nor the outfielders have to worry about the other team running at them either.  The batter and any of his teammates who may be waiting to run home just have to hit the ball and run respectively.  Again, nobody must watch out for opposing players going at them (though, some players do collide).  Each player, when on the field of play, has specific parameters in which to excel and to promote the athlete as an individual and part of a whole.  It’s a cumulative team effort via individual success.

Observe:

Now, imagine one possession in a football game.  Moments before the snap, the quarterback looks around to see that his team is in place and the other team is in place.  He knows what play to run and unless he calls an audible, it’s as straight-forward as executing that play.  Except that it isn’t so simple.  He may connect with his wide receiver or running back, but there’s no guarantee the ball-carrier will move the ball ten or more yards no less make it to the end zone.  And why ever not?  Because defensive players from the other team are chasing after and acting as obstacles to the offensive players.  Compared even to a bases loaded scenario in baseball, a single offensive play in football involves many more players in motion simultaneously, converging onto the same space and specific areas of the playing field.

Observe:

Let that juxtaposition sink in for a spell.  In one sport, the sources of “threat” are encapsulated by each player’s function spread out across an expansive field.  The gathering of players doesn’t happen unless the inning is over and the teams switch places (or two players get into each other’s faces and there’s a melee whereupon the dugout may empty onto the field).  In the other sport, the sources of “threat” are flying by you, aiming for you, on your heels, three steps ahead and to the side.  Undoubtedly, it is your job as the wide receiver or running back to anticipate that chaos and run through it just as it is the job of your teammates to block for and protect you.

Yes, NFL players are trained and live for creating order out of that sensory load.   Yes, they have to be able to filter out the visual “white noise” so they can focus on not horse-collaring, false-starting, or holding, all the while putting points on the board or helping their team do it by clearing a path or protecting the QB.  It is precisely because of these intricacies that NFL Films so gorgeously demonstrates what I believe there are other factors that affect how reliably well the players do across a game and across a season: chemistry, physical and cognitive agility, nurturing the capabilities to score well period and to play smarter than the other team can against you.

Observe (I’m not a New England Patriots fan per se, but this video is topically relevant):
Certainly, there are repeatable behaviors and evidence-based information that contributes to how a team and its players evolve and grow to be dependably good and great.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s ultimately more art and serendipity than science and math.  Perhaps applying a winning strategy with a high return on financial, psychological, and emotional investment is more like an organ transplant — the donor and the recipient have to be a match and there’s still a chance of rejection.  What appears to be applicable systemically for great results is an illusion.  A team wins because of specific players in that specific time and place, defying expectations and breaking patterns.

Taking a step back from high-level contemplation and dipping into more grounded concerns, the Falcons have to play better against the other teams in the NFC South.  It’s not a foreign concept nor an unattainable feat for them.  They’ve done it before and in this century.  When Arthur Blank or anyone else in the Falcons organization expresses full faith and determination in a kick-arse season, the reluctance still remains.  How do you know? Doing everything right and smart that a team can do couldn’t equate to a victory on the field because they aren’t the other team.  They may know their opponents like  the back of their hand, but they can’t control what their opponents do or how they react.

Therein lies the beauty and escapist elements of watching a team play their hearts out and take in a good harvest.  That’s zen right there — a win today, maybe, maybe not a win next week.  Zen has its place in helping a player keep cool under times of extreme duress while the weight of a divisional title and playoff chance is pounding him on the shoulders, but try telling that to people who pay for a chance to live vicariously through his endeavors.  They want to see the professional baller outscore the other team, not have a spiritual awakening in the red zone.  Although, that would make for an awesome viral video.

* But can you really control for the strengths and weaknesses of other teams?  Football teams operate like colonies of ants — each ant has a duty and they all work as one fluid unit to ensure the survival of their queen and their home.  At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if sheer luck and recognizing kindred spirits in each teammate isn’t the actual reason one franchise has an enviable biographical legend and another is a sad, soggy bowl of cereal.  No matter what the bowl looks like, what milk is used, or what combination or permutation of cereal used, it’s forever sad and soggy.

Bonus Round: NFL as Theatre — something sounds like rice krispies.

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