Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Mike Francesa and a weird 'Overtime' Rule:

I often listen to Sports Pundit Mike Francesa. He's very clear. That is, when he makes a point, he repeats it at least four times so you can't miss it. And he's very authoritative. That is, when he gives an opinion, it sounds well-judged and correct, and unless you check out how often he's wrong, you're always convinced you are hearing the down-home truth.

Mike also thinks fast when talking to his on-the-air callers, but a caller today (I'm sorry I don't have his name) put Mike into rather desperate high gear. The subject was: Overtime rules for Pro Football. It’s generally understood that the current rules are unfair, and an improvement will be tried this year in the playoffs. But this caller had wild idea that’s really fun to think about. Let me explain his idea:

The goal is to be fair about deciding who gets the ball first. At the beginning of overtime, each coach writes the number of a yardline on a piece of paper and gives it to the referee. Whichever coach has written a lower number gets the ball ON THAT YARDLINE. So for example, suppose coach A writes 20 and B writes 5. B’s team starts the overtime with the ball in their possession on their 5 yard line, 95 yards from the goal.

We’ll get to my objections later, but first we’ll pick at Mike. He started with an excellent complaint: “You mean the coaches have to take a quiz?” Now in fact, that does sound like a good reason not to try this rule. Coaches coach football plays! They don’t play guessing games on paper. Or do they? Pro Football is full of probabilities and zero-sum games, and coaches play them all the time. But not by writing a number on paper; that would look wrong, even though it’s a natural extension of what coaches actually do.

Francesa’s second complaint was that it’s all-important to get the ball first. He would want his coach to always write 1 and get the ball on the 1 yard line. The caller thought this was crazy, and so do I, up to a point. Mike said, “If the team on the one yard line gets one first down, or even a penalty, there goes your [defensive] advantage. I’d rather have the ball.”

But probabilities often favor the defense in football. And suppose that after four quarters, the score is tied 3 to 3. Would you be willing to take the ball on your 1-yard line in such a defensive game?

Alternatively, suppose the score is 49 to 49. Sounds like both coaches would write 1, just to get the ball. Which brings me to my lesser objection: in a lot of cases, this method of awarding the ball would result in a tie. Not just a tie because both coaches wrote “1.” In other situations, some other number might be favorable and both coaches would write that number. How would you break the tie? If you could think of a fair way to break this tie, then probably it would be best to forget about the coaches writing down a yardline number, and go right away to this other fair method; unless your tiebreaking method is to flip a coin.

My greater objection, I think, is a killer. Coaches would hate this proposed rule, and campaign to get rid of it, because it would make them look SO BAD when they tried a number that didn’t work. For example, Coach A writes 1 and gets the ball on his 1 yard line. Three plays later he punts and the other team scores, and Coach A looks like a dummy. Or coach A writes down 35 and coach B writes 20; B’s team takes the ball and scores. Coach A looks like a dummy! Why didn’t he write 19?

By the way, I have blogged about Mike Francesa before, when he voiced an awesome malaprop: There are No Words to describe It.


jgfellow said...

You know, I had always heard that "the team that wins the coin toss wins about half of the overtime games." I had taken that to mean it didn't matter much. What I didn't realize (until today) is that about 5% of over time games result in ties, so the results are 52/43/5 in favor of the coin-toss winner.

Still, I can't get bent out of shape about the coin toss -- before the coin toss, the probabilities of each team winning are equal -- 47.5%. Complaining that, after the coin toss they are not is a little like saying that it's unfair that probabilities change (a) if someone gets hurt (b) after a bad call (c) a lucky tackle is broke. These are all true, and different than complaining that the probabilities change after a spectacular play. But I don't mind the coin toss -- just part of the game.

jgfellow said...

But to PB's point -- I agree. The same instinct which keeps them from going for it on 4th and 1 would probably make them want to avoid looking bad for putting in that kind of a yard-bid.

But I do think that the idea was creative.

tobyr21@gmail.com said...

The current wisdom is that the team that gets the ball first in overtime wins MORE than half the time. But I think they get the ball on a kickoff, so that they often start play on the 35 yard line.