Monday, September 28, 2009

Employee Appreciation in Action, Part Two

Football fans always want their team to go for it on fourth and short. The only people who want it more are the team's offensive linemen.

The desire for recognition is a universal human trait. Fourth and short is the only play in the game where offensive linemen get to be the center of attention. Even the most fantasy league and Madden '10-besotted follower of football knows that on fourth and short, success hinges on the ability of the offensive behemoths to best the defensive behemoths in the stylized hand-to-hand combat for 18 inches of real estate that is the sport's essence. The increasing importance of passing has only heightened the linemen's fondness for going for it. At last, a chance to stop being a damned counterpuncher. We hit first!!

Given their druthers, coaches would go for it on fourth and short almost every time. Coaches are products of the game's culture, which celebrates risk-taking. They believe in accepting and confronting challenges as directly as possible (whether that's by nature or nurture is an issue for another post). They believe, as Bill Parcells said, "you always ought to be able to get one lousy yard."

But coaches also believe in their paychecks, and the costs of failing on fourth and short are very high. This has created a rough risk management mathematical model which states that teams are more likely to go for it the further away they are from their own goal line without reaching their field goal kicker's comfort zone.

So what are we to make of Bill Belichick's decision yesterday to have the Pats go for it yesterday from the New England 24, leading the Falcons by a one-possession margin of 16-10? In both reputation and fact Belichick is a dispassionate and careful risk manager, aware of football's situational probabilities out to the eighth numeral to the right of the decimal point. What possessed the coach to risk a failure that had an excellent shot at losing a lead, and perhaps a game?

My former colleague Tony Massarotti posited that Belichick was asserting leadership of a wayward offense. This is surely erroneous. It's only in politics where telling people to do something they're dying to do anyway counts as leadership.

Football's a simple game, although making it so can be a complex matter. Trying to read Belichick's mind shouldn't make us overthink the situation. Belichick decided to risk going for it on 4th and and short just outside his own red zone because in his judgment, there was no risk involved. The offensive line had already made the call for him.

The way I saw it, Belichick was delivering a pep talk in one phrase of playbook jargon gibberish. He was speaking directly to his offensive line and bragging on them in the process. Here's one man's translation of Belichick's decision, as heard by the behemoths in question.

"Men, you are kicking some serious ass out there today! I love it! Go out and show the whole world how you're doing it. Go out and show the Falcons they're not stopping us in this game!"

As noted, human beings like recognition. The Pats offensive line continued to kick ass, on the fourth and one and thereafter, and New England beat a talented team going away. How could it not? The Pats have flaws, but they also have soul, and no team with a soul could fail after any coach, let alone the reticent Belichick, made such a public expression of his faith in them -- one where the consequences of failure were his, not theirs.

Faith moves mountains, it is said. Dunno about that, but we have clinical evidence it can move defensive tackles back a few steps.


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