Block & Tackle previews the coming weekend of NFL football.
The New York Times operates a fun experiment in applied statistics called Fourth Down Bot. This software creature monitors NFL action and, whenever a fourth down arises, calculates whether it’s statistically preferable to kick a field goal, punt, or go for it. Obsessive sports-stat enthusiasts can follow all of the bot’s calculations on its official website; its Twitter feed highlights moments when the bot disagrees with a coach’s real-life call, which happens often.
Almost invariably, those disagreements arise after a coach declines to go for it. NFL coaches are too conservative on fourth down, and this has been known for some time. They’re probably too conservative on other downs, too, but nobody cares because there isn’t a cute robot to document the phenomenon. I like that Fourth Down Bot continues to make the statistical case for courage (with a touch of silliness, no less), but I have a simpler reason why teams should embrace fourth down: because it’s there.
The last time fourth-down philosophy was debated in a primetime spotlight came during the 2009 season, in a pivotal Sunday night game between New England and Indianapolis. The Patriots faced fourth-and-2 on their own 28 yard line, nursing a six-point lead with only a couple minutes remaining. Head coach Bill Belichick opted to go for it, reasoning that if the Patriots could gain just two yards, they’d get a new set of downs and would practically end the game. The fourth-down play came up just short, at least according to the officials, and the replay of Tom Brady’s fateful pass to Kevin Faulk became the equivalent of the Zapruder film for Pats fans.
The Colts went on to win that game, and Belichick was pilloried forthwith by the high priests of football orthodoxy. The coach displayed “arrogance,” they tutted, and the decision would be a “stain in Belichick’s record.” On NBC’s post-game show, talking potato (and ex-Colts coach) Tony Dungy shook his head and scolded, “As much as you might respect Peyton Manning, you have to play the percentages and punt the ball.”
If Dungy were concerned with the meanings of words, he would have been troubled to learn that Belichick’s call was in fact the percentage play, by a wide margin. The numbers were clear. Going for it on fourth down was the choice that gave the Patriots the best possible chance to win the game. As a New England fan, this statistical argument gave me solace at the time. I was glad to have a coach who made rational decisions rather than “playing it safe” by willfully diminishing his team’s odds of victory. But in the years since, I’ve come to wonder why the statistical argument is even necessary.
The game gives you four chances to advance the ball 10 yards, and if you can do it, you keep the ball. This forthright rule is the soul of American football; everything else is an elaboration. So if a coach wants to take all four of those chances, shouldn’t that be his privilege? After all, when the offense takes the field, they tacitly agree to the four-down-10-yard challenge. Punting is just a trick for a team to weasel out of a tough spot—a way of saying, “Gee, 10 yards is longer than we thought. Here, you take the ball while we catch our breath.”
Teams that go for it on fourth down, conversely, are honoring their commitment. They implicitly promised to move the ball, and they strive to keep that promise even when potential failure is imminent. I’m not saying that it’s always the right strategic choice to keep fighting on fourth down. Instead, I’m saying that when life gives you four opportunities to achieve success, there is some valor in choosing not to cut your losses after three. Fourth down exists, and we are all going to die someday. You might as well play the damn game.
That’s why I’m delighted to introduce Block & Tackle’s own Go For It Bot. The product of extensive research in the B&T skunkworks, Go For It Bot monitors NFL action for fourth down situations, and when those situations arise, it advises teams to go for it. As you can see by the tweet above, our technologists still have a few kinks to work out in the code, but I expect our virtual automaton to be in better shape for its first real-world test this Sunday evening, when it will offer commentary on the Saints-Cowboys matchup. Follow Go For It Bot on Twitter if you’d like to see how the machine handles its forthcoming assignment.
I don’t want to say “Go For It Bot is better than Fourth Down Bot,” but I do want to write it, which is why I just did. Because while any bot can be programmed with an algorithm, Go For It Bot has been programmed with a philosophy—namely, that regardless of down and distance, there is no shame in marching forth.
Philadelphia enters this game at 3-0, one of only three undefeated teams in the league. The Eagles offense is clicking, and they ought to get that checked out, but they’re playing excellent football in spite of it. Meanwhile, San Francisco is a disappointment at 1-2. After dropping their home opener to Chicago and floundering in the second half at Arizona, the 49ers will be eager to notch a win at their new stadium, which is named after a company that makes pants. Must please the pants masters.
This matchup is too close to call, except in Vegas, where the line is San Francisco -5½. But I’m in Chicago, so I’ll have to go to a tiebreaker question: Which city’s iconic landmark looks better when partially obscured by advertising?
We’ll start in Philadelphia, where the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall do our country proud as inspiring backdrops for Subway’s Subtember promotion. Since these symbols of our national origin are old pros at the sponsor-plug B-roll game, they know: You don’t need to force it. Just stand back, look historic, and let the glowing robot sell some sandwiches.
There’s plenty to admire about the Golden Gate Bridge, too, seen here serving as filler while NBC informs viewers that if they had an iPad, they could be watching football right now instead of a bridge.
Still, I have to give the edge to the Liberty Bell, mainly because the edge is the only part of the bell I can see. The Block & Tackle “let it ring” prediction: Philadelphia 30, San Francisco 28.
Phil Simms lost a lot of money playing “bet I can guess how tall you are” with the Seattle Seahawks last night
Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week is Jerome Boger. He’s a referee, and he wears number 23, a safe prime for a safety-conscious league. Much like last week’s OOTW, Boger presided over an officiating snafu that screwed the Jets out of a touchdown that they almost certainly deserved. In both cases, the Jets went on to lose, and in both cases, the league subsequently denied that anything had gone wrong. It’s like a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch at this point. Specifically, it’s like “Gilly.”
Late in the second half of the Jets’ Monday night game against the Bears, New York linebacker Demario Davis picked up a Jay Cutler fumble and easily ran it in for a touchdown. Alas, Cutler was initially ruled down by contact, and Boger whistled the play dead. On review, Boger correctly revised his call to “fumble,” but the Jets only got the ball, not the touchdown. I’ll let NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino explain the ruling while he clumsily and inexplicably uses an Xbox 360 controller to cue up replay footage:
Jets fans spent the ensuing days hurling invective at Boger, but he’s accustomed to verbal abuse. In grade school, his classmates used to add an “O” to his name and call him “Jeroome Boger.” Kids can be so mean. Congratulations to Jeroome Boger, Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week.
Boger may be taking the heat for the latest Jets boner. But New York offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, the Filene’s Basement of coaches, accepted responsibility for the phantom timeout that robbed the team of a score in Week 2. This costly gaffe will hardly go down as the biggest screwup in the coordinator’s career. No, that honor goes to a blunder Mornhinweg made while he was head coach of the Detroit Lions, who the Jets face on Sunday. Mornhinweg led the Lions to a 5-27 record, and while each of his 27 losses was special in its own way, his two-year tenure is remembered mostly for that fateful day he took the wind.
The story usually goes like this. In Week 12 of the 2002 season, the Bears-Lions game went to overtime after Chicago erased a 10-point deficit in the closing minutes. Detroit won the coin toss at the beginning of overtime, yet Mornhinweg made the rare decision to let the Bears have the ball first so that the Lions would have the wind at their back. It was indeed a windy day, but because overtime was still a purely sudden-death affair in 2002, Mornhinweg had given the Bears the opportunity to score without even letting Detroit take the field in overtime. The Bears proceeded to do just that.
Many fans remember that Mornhinweg took the wind. Fewer recall that it almost worked. This tends to get lost in the retelling, but the Lions actually managed to stall Chicago’s overtime drive that day, and after a third-down Jim Miller pass fell incomplete, the Bears faced fourth-and-8 at the Detroit 35-yard line. At least, they would have—except Chicago committed a holding penalty on the play, and Mornhinweg chose to accept it, which meant replaying the down. This gave Chicago third-and-18 instead of fourth-and-8, and the Bears took advantage of the extra down to extend their drive and eventually win the game.
The crazy thing is that if Mornhinweg had simply declined the penalty—letting the play stand and putting Chicago at fourth-and-8 on the 35—he would have had the Bears right where he supposedly wanted them. Because of the stiff wind, Chicago couldn’t realistically attempt a game-winning field goal from that mark, and the only other options were to punt or go for a long fourth down. It was a tough spot—the sort of scenario Mornhinweg was hoping for when he took the wind in the first place!
Now, maybe the Bears would have gone for it and converted on fourth-and-long anyway. But by accepting the penalty, Mornhinweg saved Chicago from having to make that decision. The legend is incomplete: Taking the wind wasn’t poor Marty’s mistake. Failing to follow through was his mistake. The Block & Tackle “no man can possess the wind” prediction: Detroit 23, New York 19.
Because the Block & Tackle staff was distracted by colorful patterns of light in the sky, the following accurate predictions were misprinted in last Friday’s column: Dallas vs. St. Louis, Baltimore vs. Cleveland, Green Bay vs. Detroit, San Francisco vs. Arizona, and Denver vs. Seattle.
Also, loyal reader Bill Bloch wrote in regarding one of last week’s predictions, which read:
Oakland Raiders vs. New England Patriots (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): New England 31, Oakland √-7. Oakland will score an imaginary touchdown.
This fresh and daring experiment in square-root comedy “cracked me up,” Bill said, generously, but he also suggested a revision:
Not to be nitpicky, but I think it should be √-49 = 7i. Oops, guess I was nitpicky after all; occupational hazard.
About that occupation: Bill is a professor of mathematics at Wheaton College. So naturally, his amendment is correct and has been accepted for the record. But in all honesty, when Block & Tackle employs imaginary numbers, you’re free to imagine any sum that you want—like 12, that’s a nice one.
The eternal quest to determine which is better—the touchdown dance or the sack dance—continues this week with two reader suggestions. In the touchdown-dance category, Twitter denizen Claude Balls nominated the Brian Hartline golf putt that capped a successful Dolphins drive in their loss to the Chiefs on Sunday:
Hartline was penalized 15 yards for simulating a non-violent sport, which resulted in fairly good field position for the Chiefs on their next drive. Since Hartline’s eight seconds of carefree pleasure ended up giving the other team an advantage, he was forced to enact the inane pro sports spectacle of apologizing for fun.
On the sack front, Twitter friend semitransparent ooze nominated the foot-stamping power pose that Stephen Tulloch struck after bringing down Aaron Rodgers on Sunday:
That may not look impressive, but Tulloch’s move set a new record for the number of anterior cruciate ligaments torn in a single sack dance: one. And with that ACL tear, Tulloch will miss the rest of the year. It’s the first season-ending football dance since the tangled-limbs epidemic of 1926, when the NFL briefly instituted a rule that players had to perform the Charleston before every third down.
The winner is Brian Hartline, for his smooth, Carson-esque stroke. That brings the overall tally to Sack Dance 1, Touchdown Dance 1.
If there’s an on-field display of joy that you’d like to see featured in Touchdown Dance vs. Sack Dance, tweet it to me @johnteti. Should I decide to use the dance in a column, I’ll tweet you a recipe for seven-layer dip that I found on Yahoo! Answers. I do not vouch for the quality of the recipe.
The NFL likes to pretend that its various nights of football are equivalent, but we all know this to be false. Sunday Night Football has the best matchups, the best announcers, and the highest production value. Thursday Night Football features surprisingly lousy divisional matchups with players who are operating on too-short rest, which is such an affront to concerns over player health that TNF might just be evil.
Monday Night Football occupies a weird in-between zone. The Monday broadcast used to be the marquee capstone to the NFL weekend (except late in the season, when it often featured meaningless games—this was before the days of “flex” scheduling). Since NBC gets the choicest games now, ESPN’s big show feels less like required viewing and more like a nice postscript that allows us to ease into the non-football portion of the week. I prefer the lower-key MNF, but I’m also glad that the Monday Night Football theme song was composed in the days when this was the Game Of The Freaking Week.
This is an all-time great theme, and I hope ESPN is wise enough to keep using it forever. The arrangement heard above, used by the network since 2012, is especially strong. An insistent bass line suggests the hut-hut-hike rhythm of individual plays, while the escalating horns evoke the grander buildup that happens as the fourth quarter approaches and a game’s overarching narrative comes into focus. Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” asked if we were ready for some football, but the main Monday Night Football theme has never asked—it MAKES you ready for some football.
If I loved John Williams as much as NBC Sports executives seem to love John Williams, then maybe I’d be fonder of the Sunday Night Football theme. It’s not bad, and its first salvo is almost as exciting as the opening strains of the MNF song. After that initial burst of energy, though, the music wanders, as if we’re listening to Williams putter around in his attic of half-ideas. There’s not much about this tune that screams “football,” either—it’s too pompous and cinematic to resonate with the rough, random thrills of the gridiron. All that said, the theme wasn’t meant to be heard on its own like this; when it’s accompanied by Al Michael’s dulcet narration plus NBC’s superb graphics and camerawork, the whole package comes alive.
Although the existence of Thursday Night Football may be unsavory in itself, I have to admit that the theme is fantastic. You know that standard pre-game shot of players waiting in the tunnel, hopping up and down because they’re full of nervous energy? This theme is that shot in musical form. Bonus points to composer Helmut VonLichten for including subtle references to the venerable, likewise excellent NFL On CBS theme. But here’s hoping that CBS revises the mix in coming years to remove those electronic farts in the bridge. The Block & Tackle “acceptable as legal tender in 48 states and Puerto Rico” prediction: New England 20, Kansas City 16.
Here are the rest of Block & Tackle’s final score predictions for the rest of the Week 4 slate. All Block & Tackle predictions are guaranteed to be correct.
New York Giants vs. Washington (last night, 8:25 p.m., CBS/NFLN): Washington 28, New York 17.
Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): Chicago 17, Green Bay 16. The forecast calls for clear skies in Chicago on Sunday, which has Bears head coach Marc Trestman excited: He heard that if you rub Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers against your head on a dry day, your hair will get all frizzy with static electricity, and he wants to try it.
Buffalo Bills vs. Houston Texans (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Houston 21, Buffalo 13. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was Boobie D’s birthday?
Tennessee Titans vs. Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Indianapolis 31, Tennessee 20.
Carolina Panthers vs. Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Carolina 22.38, Baltimore 19.55. In a nod to the ever-growing influence of fantasy football, the NFL will use fractional points for this game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): Pittsburgh 28, Tampa Bay 17.
Miami Dolphins vs. Oakland Raiders (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Miami 24, Oakland 12. This game will be played in London, where football is referred to as “American soccer.”
Atlanta Falcons vs. Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox): Atlanta 16, Minnesota 14. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Minnesota is 7-6 against teams named after cats and 4-4 against teams named after birds.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. San Diego Chargers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., CBS): San Diego 50, Jacksonville 3. The Jaguars continue to make the case for contraction.
New Orleans Saints vs. Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): New Orleans 38, Dallas 28. Three weeks into the season, the total number of seagulls assassinated by Cowboys punter Chris Jones remains at zero. Let’s see some hustle out there.
B&T prediction record last week: 16-0
B&T prediction record for 2014 season: 49-0
Regrettable corrections made: 22