Makes perfect sense now.
Game Theory Bits Featuring Jim Harbaugh
Three things of interest happened over the weekend to the Everything Is Agricola portion of my brain:
1. Michigan had it first and ten from their one. Q: what's the difference in overall value between sneaking it for two yards and just flat-out taking a safety? I'm thinking it's not very large. Michigan did that and threw incomplete twice and then had to use their no-blocky punt formation. The result was EMU getting the ball around the Michigan 30.
I wonder if it makes more sense to just act like you're on the ten or something. It seems like giving away that down makes your life much tougher when the alternative is 1) rare and 2) maybe not that bad. You're giving up two points but you're probably gaining half of that back in field position. The difference between a punt from the five and a punt without any rush from the 35 (since punters usually drop back 15 yards) is big.
[UPDATE: I asked the Mathlete. He responded thusly:
1st and 10 at your own one has an expected value of -1.71. The offensive value is +.79 and the ensuing opponent possession is worth 2.50.
At 2nd and 8 the offense drops slightly to +.76 but so does the opponent to 2.27, improving the offense's expected value by 0.2 to -1.51.
A post-safety kick off from the 20 yields the opponent an average of 2.09 points but forfeiting the offense's expected points, giving up 2 points and getting back only a slight benefit in defensive EV.
The play is worth -2.38 points on 1st and 10 from the one and -2.58 on 2nd and 8 from the 3. The only time you can make a case for it is on fourth down when the offense has exhausted its value and it's the fourth quarter and the 2 points on the scoreboard won't be a major swing, i.e. between 4 and 6 points.
So it's a big deal. I'm following up to figure out whether pretending you're at the 30 and just running your offense is a better play than the usual strategy.]
2. Jim Harbaugh did something stupid. The scenario: San Francisco has just kicked a field goal to go up ten with 11 minutes left. A 15 yard penalty would put the ball on the Dallas 22 with a first down up seven. Harbaugh declines the penalty and San Francisco blows the game.
This does seem like a huge, stupid error. NFL kickers are near automatic from within 40, you might get a touchdown, and even if you don't you've bled another two minutes off a clock that's significantly in your favor.
The NFL win percentage folk say this is no big deal, though:
The 15-yard enforcement on the kickoff ensures a touchback. By taking the 3 points, the 49ers have a 10-point lead with the Cowboys having a 1st down at their own 20. This gave the 49ers a win probability (WP) of 0.90.
Accepting the penalty for a 1st down gives the 49ers the ball at the Dallas 22, up by 7. This is worth a WP of 0.91.
The percentage play would have been to take the points off the board and accept the 1st down, but just barely. In the grand scheme, this is a very small error. The common punt or FG attempt on 4th and short in most game situations is usually more costly, and most fans and analysts hardly take note of them.
I'm not sure I agree. For one, this situation seems like a stat more like save percentage than anything else. When 90% is the baseline success rate there's a big difference between 90% and 91%. If you look at it from a chance of losing perspective, forgoing the penalty increases your chance to lose by 11%. In hockey that's the difference between an AHL goalie and an NHL one.
3. Before that Jim Harbaugh did something even dumber. But even if we put that aside, Harbaugh went maximum puntasaur just to try the field goal. It was fourth and one on the 37! Doing anything other than going for it is the beyond stupid. It goes into the realm of irredeemable. According to the WP folks, that decision swung SF's chance of winning from 87% to 83%, a 31% increase.
The moral of the story, as always, is that if you find yourself at a poker table with a football coach other than Bill Belichick mortgage everything you have.
This stuff just must be not that important. Recruiting and strategizing and fundamentals and all that stuff has to be about 98% of the job or the odd guy who's heard of expected value would instantly shoot to the top of the league. What league? Any league.
Brady Hoke will disappoint sooner or later; the best we can hope for is that he won't do it as spectacularly as some coaches do. /shakes fist at 2005 Ohio State game
This is why Coach Bill and Tom Brady are both married to babes and get the big money. Denver '03(?) Belichick took the safety (on the 4th down punt attempt) while trailing, the Pat's punter kicked it 65 yards, they got the 3 and out, Brady threw the TD to win. Netted a zillion yards in field position, and still had 2 minutes and a timeout to work with. (2 minutes and a timeout and Bray could cure cancer.). Course if the Denver returner had, well, returned the freekick things coulda been different. But we're talking Bradychick.
This year, two games in a row, Brady passes on 1st down from his own 1; one for the 99 yard TD, the other to start a 10 play drive for 6. Both brack breakers and game winners.
You win when you play to win. Taking points off the board to give yourself a chance to put more points on the board or - barring something freaky or stupid - taking time off the clock and still getting the original 3 points back seems like a no brainer playing to win kinda thing to do. Then Jimmy could marry a supermodel, too.
...having watched alex smith for 7 or 700 years in a row now, taking the points was the smartest thing. Alex smith is the reason and the reason why the niners lose most games.
Harbaugh did something stupid but Garrett was worse.
He has a 2nd and 2 at the SF 30 with 1:20 to go and he runs it twice and ends up attempting a 48yd FG to tie with a scrub kicker who already missed a gimmee. It worked but it was stupid.
Other beauties of the week
Dantonio trick play
Dantonio punting with under 5 minutes to go down 2 scores in ND territory.
Fikell looked like a moron not using any timeouts on Miami's last drive.
I still think the fallacy in the Romer paper is that each game is a such a small sample it creates wild variance in game outcomes that could ruin a season. If they did not award wins and losses and they awarded the national chamipion based on score differential I think it would make sense. Consider a team like Oklahoma.
Playing according to Romer theory they would go for it almost all the time. Based on stats they would pile up a massive amount of points and would win games 85-10, but a mistake would cause such a high variance they would most likely blow a game where things didn't go well. This might cost them a game they otherwise might win and blow the season. In college football you can only afford maybe 1 loss so you need to minimize the chances you blow a game going for the kill.
I think Oklahomas scoring differential would grow but the likelihood they lose more games would increase as well. Not a good combo.
I like Jim Harbaugh because he's a Michigan Man, but part of me wants him to fail because he's an asshole.
I was watching the 49ers game with my friend and his dad, who is a former starting safety in the NFL. When Harbaugh was making the decision, my friend's dad said automatically that you take the points. He didn't have any specific examples from his time in the NFL but he said that it just isn't a good idea to take the points off of the board.
If you want to start to get up to speed on conventional sports wisdom vs. thinking in terms of expected value, take a look at Moneyball (the book, not the film).