In recent years, a growing number of coaches have been making in-game decisions based more on math than other real-time factors that potentially influence football decisions.
On Thursday night, Colts coach Frank Reich decided to go for it on fourth and seven with three minutes left from the Houston 47 while trailing by three and holding two timeouts (he burned one before the fourth-down play). On Friday morning, Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy addressed the decision.
“That’s why I have a problem with analytics,” Dungy said on PFT Live regarding the decision not to punt and play defense. “Well, percentage-wise this is gonna happen, and this is what you should do. . . . I think Frank Reich was watching this game and he saw his defense really struggling to contain the Texans offense, and I don’t think he felt good about getting the ball back [if he’d punted], and that’s what happened. After they went for it on fourth down, they had their timeouts, needed the stop, and couldn’t get it. I think it was really based on what he had seen by Deshaun Watson and that offense that he went for it and they just didn’t come up with it.”
Dungy elaborated on the intersection between analytics and the realities of a given game.
“You’re sitting there and you’ve got a chart that says 90 percent of the time on this fourth down and one you’re going to make it and win the game,” Dungy said. “Okay, yeah, but you might be playing against the ’85 Bears. Or you might be playing against a team that doesn’t have any offense that you can kick the ball to them and you feel very confident that you’re going to get the ball back in two minutes. So it depends on what’s happening in the game, how you’re playing, all of those things — field conditions, weather. To me, you just can’t go by a book and say, ‘This percentage of the time, X happens so I’m going to do that.'”
He’s right. And that’s not an anti-analytics take. It’s a pro-reality take. The percentages are what they are, and the percentages are shaped by the many unique situations in which paast teams made decisions that did or didn’t work based on factors completely and totally unrelated to the math.
The best coaches are aware of the numbers, and they use them as a factor in each decision that is made. And for the same reason the numbers shouldn’t be ignored, they also shouldn’t be the only factor.