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Challenge Convention to Win the Game

January 26, 2012

The other evening I switched on the TV and the HBO show Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel was currently airing. I’m not a regular watcher, but the story they were reporting, “Between the Numbers”, caught my interest and spurred several more general insights to my mind in its wake.


In a nutshell, the story described Pulaski Academy football head coach Kevin Kelley’s unconventional approach towards several types of play, and the (seemingly) surprising amount of success his Bruins have been enjoying as a result. Good with numbers, much of Kelley’s thinking and playbook are driven by the statistics and odds within the game. The data, he suggests, show that often teams are simply giving up the ball too easily. Cases in point: the tendency to near-automatically punt on fourth down and to always send return kicks deep. Instead, Kelley coaches his team that:


Every Kick is Onside

The rationale: even if they don’t immediately recover the ball, on average this tactic only gives up 14 yards, and giving up this yardage for a chance at what amounts to essentially a turnover (without the time and effort of defending, mind you) is well worth the risk. It all comes down to recognizing an acceptable level of risk for the possibility of an immediate and significant advantage. Additionally, his opponents now have to devote time and effort practicing to defend against this strategy, and that ends up hurting them in other areas.


On Fourth Down, Go For It

Kelley refers to punting as “offensive failure”. His argument? Winning in football (contrary to what many coaches would argue) is about making touchdowns, not about field position. Secondarily, it’s about getting first downs — and really that’s just to maintain control of the ball in order to continue getting touchdowns. Further, even if his team is near their own goal line and punts, in addition to giving up the ball to their opponents there is still more than a 75% chance the other team will score even after the ball has been moved downfield 30-40 yards. By going for it on fourth down, he actually has better odds (50/50) of maintaining possession and avoiding that potential negative outcome.


Don’t Field Received Punts

Coach’s thinking here: “We have already accomplished what we needed to accomplish: we’ve stopped your offense, you are giving us the ball, and there are too many things which could go wrong if we did field the kick.” By not fielding the reception, he still has a known (safe) outcome: his team has possession.



While coach Kelley’s arguments are intriguing, his enthusiasm about this approach contagious, and there is no denying that his team has a great record to show for it, I was struck by some maxims that would seem common sense if presented in a business forum:


Question the Traditional

First and foremost, don’t simply accept the status-quo just because it’s “the way it’s always been done”. While standard patterns and practices may be successful, don’t stop examining, analyzing, and asking if there isn’t a better way to do things — that’s where real innovation and unexpected success can be found. This doesn’t mean to simply upset the applecart because you can though; use all the available information to make reasoned choices based on the analysis.


Look at the Data (Your Gut May Be Wrong)

One point raised in the story was that the tendency to not “go for it” on fourth down might come more from psychology and our fear of loss overriding our recognizing the potential gains to be had. Don’t let “gut feelings” cause you to be overly risk-averse; take a dispassionate look at what the data is telling you and risk when it makes sense — because sometimes our guts are simply full of sh*t.


Know When to Risk (and When Not To)

All of the Bruins unconventional practices are based on simply understanding enough of the odds and patterns to know when risking makes sense and when it does not. It’s like a Vegas blackjack card counter — by knowing what the odds are at any moment based on the data analysis, the risk/reward balance can be tipped in your favor and yield great returns over the long run.


Analyze, Yes — But You Still Have to Have Talent

While coach Kelley is using data analysis to inform his decisions, the team wouldn’t be winning if they didn’t first have some terrific football players. The statistics can point at improvements to be made or a new approach, but to achieve a lasting success you have to have capability and focus first.


From → Opinion

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