Why They Play the Game

Spoiler Alert… Today’s post is about football (American football, yes, I see you, non-US friends)…If you refuse to read posts about football on principle because of CTE, the outrageous amounts of money involved, or excess testosterone, I appreciate your perspective. But, sorry mate, My Team is GOING TO THE SHOW! I need to talk about it.

Red, White, and Gold is coming. Photo from Sporting News.

I do like me some sports, so much so that I wrote a book about ’em, and I do like my teams, especially when the team works together, has intelligent leadership, and has fun. I can’t help but think about this approach as business model, ’cause I’m an MBA and organizational behavior coupled with analytics is in my DNA. After all, it says “statistics” right there at the top of my site, plastered across the California hills.

Thirty Runs

A curious thing happened after the Niners completed their 27-10 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs. One player after another started mentioning how many times the ball was run. Not just the coach or the running backs, but the tight end (who catches passes and blocks) and the defense:

I think 47 rushes is pretty good, right? I think we had close to 200 on 47 rushes. …Playing against six techniques with the linebackers on the inside, it’s pretty easy to get those combo blocks up to them.

George Kittle, tight end (offense)

That was the biggest thing for us this week is trying to get 30 runs. We had like 40 or something, 47. We knew if we did that we’d win.

Nick Bosa, defensive end

It’s one thing for the coach to come out after the fact and mention that their goal was thirty runs. It’s another for all the players to have known that was the collective goal as well. Perhaps it’s easy in retrospect to claim that the Niners are a running team because their two playoff games were rather lopsidedly run-based. However, none of the rushers would be considered exceptional (until last week), and we fans were nervous throughout the season about the “run by committee” approach. We’d love to have a true star running back (a la Derrick Henry of Tennessee) or a quarterback with a bit of mobility (like Patrick Mahomes).

The Niners are a team, after all, that passed with glee against New Orleans in a 48-46 bombfest and in lopsided games against the Bengals (41-17) and the Panthers (51-13). We had plenty o’ touchdowns in the air. We also have arguably the best defense in the league, winning games chasing quarterbacks by a ferocious threesome nicknamed the Gold Rush.

One of Raheem Mostert’s four touchdowns. Photo at chbssports.

So, yeah, we can pass and play defense as much as run the ball. But what babyfaced Coach Kyle Shanahan seems particularly good at is coming up with a game plan and goals that are situation-specific, and then getting the entire team focused on helping achieve that goal, even if their contribution is peripheral. How does the defense help with the offensive running game? By getting the other team’s offense off the field quickly. How does the running game help the defense? By using up time to let the other fellas breathe a little.

That tactic was actually in evidence in Sunday’s conference game against the Packers, where a couple of quick Green Bay scores made for a bit of nervous lip-chewing in my house. Aaron Rodgers is one of the great quarterbacks, known for lightning scores and comebacks. The Packers rocked the Niners back on their heels with two impressive opening drives in the second half. San Francisco’s answer was to hold the ball and run, run, run, two to three yards a time, chewing up 30% of the time remaining in the process. The Packers actually won the second half of the game, 20-10 and had nearly equal numbers in a variety of key statistics. But the game really was never close.

NFC Champ GameGreen BayNiners
Time of Possession31 min28 min
Red Zone Efficiency3/32/3
Passing Yd29169
QB rating97.2104.7

The Stats (Don’t) Lie

The emphasis on statistics in modern games borders on the bizarre, even for someone like me who likes numbers a lot. There’s a specialized word for it in baseball (sabrmetrics), and a $7 billion industry (Fantasy Football) that only exists because of widespread access to data. The latest incarnation of the weird is when announcers throw completely irrelevant and non-statistical tidbits into the fray, like “only 3 teams in the last 7 have come back from 10-point deficits…” The more numbers available, in fact, the more people seem to use them without having any understanding of what they mean. “Only 3 of the last 7 teams wearing red jerseys have had quarterbacks who rushed for 20 or more yards who were born within 15 days of an equinox…”

What happens with statistics is that they get combined and watered down, kind of like the way investment bankers chopped up bad mortgage loans before the Great Recession. Quarterback ratings, for example, are a complex composite of other statistics, like completed passes and interceptions, but they don’t necessarily capture the most important factors. When you combine and weight and mix and chop, you end up obsessing about numbers without seeing what might be right in front of your face. The loan is bad. The quarterback can’t find open receivers when he needs to.

If you look, for example, at the Green Bay and Niner comparative stats–the ones in the table above were listed right at the top of the NFL Stat Sheet–you’d think the game was close. Yet anyone who watched knew the game was effectively over before the second half started.

Harper’s Magazine ran an excellent analysis on the obsession with numbers in an article about the NFL Scouting Combine. Over the years this event, which assesses the quality of potential players, has them run sprints, jump over logs, and take IQ tests. TV talking heads then analyze the data to death and rank players with often ludicrous results. Robert Griffin III had the best ever Combine numbers, but effectively only played for one year. In comparison, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady scored poorly on scouting reports, as did Super Bowl-winning Jim McMahon.

McMahon was chubby and slow and did not throw hard, and his passes were wounded ducks, and he was a smart-­ass and drank too much and made the wrong kind of headlines and changed plays at the line of scrimmage and was short. He was also half-­blind in one eye. In fact, the only thing Jim ­McMahon was ever good at was winning football games.

“The Wood Chipper: How the NFL Shops for Players,” Harper’s, September 2019

What has happened is the need to fill sports commentary shows and pull money from fan pocketbooks in the off season has led to an over-focus on trivia that obscures what really goes on in the game. It’s like a microcosm of the Internet: all the information you’d ever want at your fingertips but no general improvement of knowledge.

So should we ignore the numbers? Yes and no. Part of the trick is to look at the Right Number, which might not be those high on the chart. The Niners had nine sacks in their two playoff games, a number I had to click through three screens to get. The brilliant quarterback for Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes, had 53 years in rushing–half of the team amount; how do you factor that in so it floats to the top? How do you measure Completions under Desperate Circumstances? Number of Times Quarterback Spots Open Receiver while Running from Ogres? Ability to Elude Outstretched Arms? If you had a way to measure the right abilities, your numbers would include them. If not, then you can’t just use numbers. You have to play the game.

Mahomes’ elusive ways. Photo from TheBigLead.com.

Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object

Mahomes is one of the new breed of mobile quarterbacks, maybe the best of them (we shall see), whose abilities aren’t necessarily captured in traditional ratings. The Niners have not been as successful against the speedsters, losing to Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and looking silly chasing this Century’s Great Scrambler, Seattle Russell Wilson. We have the best defense, a plethora of fleet-footed giants who like to use wrestling moves on offense linemen. But if the defense gets past the line and the quarterback is somewhere else, they could be in trouble.

The match-up is probably correctly portrayed as the best offense against the best defense. My local colleagues tell me that, in most cases, that means the defense will win. On the other hand, both George Washington and Mao have pointed out that the best defense is a good offense. We can’t just look at a jumble of data, any more than we should obsess over polls before an election. We have to vote. They have to actually play the game.

Kittle bursts into giggles after flattening an opponent in the end zone. Photo at nbcsports.com.

Slip ‘N Slide

Personally, I think the Niners’ true secret weapon is the goofiness factor, the team dynamics that drives them to enjoy playing and with each other. They play towards the same goal, and they seem to have more fun at it than any previous group that I can remember. The San Francisco team that went to the 2012 Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh was grim and nervous, plagued by controversies over choice of starting quarterback and inadequate discipline of players arrested for off-the-field incidents. This time, the team is blissfully free of prima donnas and excuse-makers.

Our best pass receiver, George Kittle, likes to skip around on the field and became infamous after an end zone tackle where he flattened a lineman and came up laughing hysterically. Nick Bosa electrified the local San Francisco crowd where, after getting gut-punched painfully but not seriously on a play, he jumped up and started dancing. Then, there was the Redskins game.

After beating the Seahawks, Nick Bosa has a suggestion for the loud Seattle crowd. Photo by Abby Parr, Getty Images.

The game in Washington on October 19th was played in puddles and mud. Jerseys were smeared with dirt. On one of the last key plays, the Niners sacked the Washington quarterback, and Nick Bosa’s glee was uncontainable. He flung himself belly-first across the field, splashing about ten yards before he stopped, arms outstretched. His defensive cohorts joined him in the Slip ‘N Slide, and the water went flying.

Niners slip’n slide in Washington. Photo by the Sporting News.

This is where I go back to organizational behavior and team dynamics. In order to be successful, it’s helpful to have a good goal, clearly communicated to everybody. Don’t obsess over the numbers too much because you might not be able to judge success solely from the stats. And no matter what you’re doing, have fun with it.

Is there a stat for Wet Yards After Sack? Can we create a Most Joyful Team composite statistic?

I’ll be watching Super Bowl LIV in twelve days, looking to see who laughs the most. That ought to be fun to watch.

4 Replies to “Why They Play the Game”

  1. I live in San Francisco, so I’m delighted to see the 49ers reach the Super Bowl. But before moving to San Francisco a decade ago, I lived in Massachusetts for almost 20 years and was a rabid Patriots fan. Since moving west, I have always hoped to see a 49ers/Patriots Super Bowl, and when the regular season ended, I thought, “This is the year.” Alas, my Patriots couldn’t get past the first playoff game, so my hopes for a SF/NE Super Bowl were shattered. I will, of course, be rooting for the Niners to best the Chiefs. But I still feel a bit melancholy that the Pats won’t be facing off against the Niners in the big game.

  2. Great article. However, my OCD kicked at this sentence :
    The brilliant quarterback for Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes, had 53 years in rushing–

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