Roundup 12/19

If you're snowed in like me this Saturday afternoon, you've got plenty of time on your hands. Early season college basketball doesn't really grab my attention. Neither does the apparently sponsor-less "New Mexico Bowl." (Actually, I often root for Fresno State due to being stationed nearby at Naval Air Station Lemoore, CA for many years.) Here are some links to help pass the snowy Saturday.

Chase Stuart from PFR looks at Steven Jackson's huge year for the struggling Rams. That's very unusual for a RB to have such a big year on a losing team. In a contribution to the Fifth Down Blog, Chase looks at the five least likely playoff teams in history based on their early season struggles.

Chase makes the case that defenses shouldn't be thought of as good against either the run or pass. Game theory, in the ideal, says he's right. Defenses, if optimizing, will bias their schemes so as to equalize success against the run and pass. This will mathematically minimize the offense's overall success. (And that's how the term 'minimax' came about--It means minimizing the opponent's maximum overall success.) The reality is that most defenses have widely varying success vs. the run and the pass. Part of the difference would obviously be due to random sample error, but the rest of the difference is because defenses aren't optimizing. My theory is that they're playing to stop the run too much in most situations.

PFR adds a milestone tracker.

Jason Lisk adds some sanity to the Pinker/Gladwell/Berri/Simmons debate about how QB draft order is related to performance. In short, Gladwell thinks that we have almost no idea how well QB draftees will do in the NFL. He says the only reason top QB draft picks appear to do better is because they get more opportunities. Berri and Simmons found that draft position fails to predict per-play performance accounting for opportunities.

I happened to have looked at this earlier in the year, but for all positions, not just QB. A very simple approach is to use years-as-starter as the measure for opportunity. Top draft picks go to more more pro-bowls per years-as-starter than later picks. Although far from conclusive, it is evidence that top picks probably do have more talent than later picks.

Jason again on whether there has been a shift from 100-yd rushers to 300-yd passers in relation to winning a game. More Jason on how Houston's Gary Kubiak is "coaching scared."

Chris Brown from Smart Football educates us all with a look at the stick passing concept. Here's a look at the '4 verticals' play. (Caution--painful to watch if you're a Ravens fan.)

The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective asks if a coach's success is related in any way to his success as a player. They don't really attempt to answer the question, but it's a good one to ask. I think the answer would  almost certainly be a resounding 'no,' but it seems to be a persistent belief that great players make great coaches, especially in the NBA. Here is the HSAC on Body Mass Index for running backs across the recent decades. (Seriously guys, please pick a better name! You sound like the Borg.)

The "matchup/breakdown of the week's 16 games" article: There are literally hundreds of these kinds of articles every week from various outlets. I have to say that Mike Tanier (of Football Outsiders) does the most succinct and best written match-up articles. They can be found at Fifth Down each week. They usually don't have any deep statistical analysis, mostly just the standard conventional stuff, but it's still very good.

Here are two related articles regarding the recent attention that sports concussions has received. The issue isn't really a medical one as it is an economic one. I don't mean economics in the usual dollars and cents meaning, but in terms of two concepts called 'moral hazard' and 'locus of decision.' In this article, Phil Birnbaum takes on the issue of concussions in the NHL. In this article, Joshua Brustein writes about Glen Beck's (the political talk host) apparently absurd assertion that the NFL is cruel to make players wear helmets.

Phil's article discusses the limits of expertise. A leading neurosurgeon in Canada is a proponent of changing the rules of hockey to protect players from brain injuries. Most people, including in the media, gravitate to the opinions of respected experts in questions like this. But Phil's point is that expert knowledge in brain injuries is not the question. Everyone already knows the potential damage that head injuries can cause. There will always be a trade-off between hockey (or football) 'as we know it' and the risk of injury. The issue is where the trade-off should be. What's the right balance?

Players know the risks and willingly accept them. No one is forcing them to play in the NHL. Should people who are experts on only one side of the trade-off override the decisions of the people who bear the costs of the risk? Ultimately, it comes down to a concept called 'locus of decision,' which literally means 'where' the decision is made. The real issue now becomes who gets to decide where the trade-off is.

Glen Beck's assertion is mostly just provocative, but it makes a good point. Moral hazard is when someone who is insured or insulated from a risk is induced to behave differently than if he were not protected. For example, my F/A-18 Hornet had a great ejection seat that could save my butt if I spun out of control. Knowing I had the ejection seat allowed me to make very, very aggressive maneuvers I never would make otherwise. I actually took on far more risk than I would have without the ejection seat. When I flew aircraft without ejection seats I was much more careful. The hazard in this case is that ejection seats cause crashes.

If a bank is insured against losing its members' deposits, it's free to take bigger financial risks.  Sports helmets work just like ejection seats or the FDIC. Helmets (and facemasks) actually encourage the dangerous collisions we see in football and hockey. In some cases, they may actually cause more harm in the long run than if players had no helmets at all. If you've ever watched a professional rugby match, you'll notice that the helmet-less defenders don't launch themselves like missiles at ball carriers like NFL defensive backs do. Making incrementally more protective helmets won't address the real cause of the injuries. It may just let players feel more comfortable about spearing their opponents.

The statement that "helmets cause concussions" isn't any more absurd than "deposit insurance causes financial instability" or "ejection seats cause crashes." At first it seems crazy, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. The question becomes 'does the increase in risky behavior outweigh the protection provided by helmets?' I doubt it, and I doubt we'll ever see the days when NFL players are wearing throw-back leather helmets. But I think it's helpful to understand that there are always unintended consequences to regulation, whether in banking or sports safety, and they're often counter-intuitive.

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5 Responses to “Roundup 12/19”

  1. Brian Burke says:

    Literally a few minutes after posting, someone sent me this article from the WSJ about the helmet issue.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Maybe it's possible to remove the football helmet, but the truth is that you're going to have to completely change the equipment and the rules for the entire game. You're not going to leave people with shoulder pads running around when people aren't wearing helmets. It's one thing (and not a good one) to see a Defensive Back launch themselves headfirst at a receiver, it'll be an entirely different thing to see that same defensive back drive their shoulderpad into a wide receiver's unsuspecting head (in this case, since not using his own head, not really taking ANY risk at all upon himself!)

    Thus (from the WSJ article): "The first hard-shell helmets, which became popular in the 1940s, weren't designed to prevent concussions but to prevent players in that rough-and-tumble era from suffering catastrophic injuries like fractured skulls."

    Well yeah. Because in football, the way it is played right now, people without helmets would suffer fractured skulls and various similar injuries. One very interesting suggestion I've seen recently is to simply impose a weight limit. Nobody plays at over 275 pounds. etc...

    Further to that, you'd also have to revamp line play. Looking at rugby, again, the "scrums" are generally short, highly organized, and very strictly controlled at close quarters by a referee.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It sure seems that helmets were brought into a game that, even without them, wasn't being played "slower" or more safely.

    This is the next line of that WSJ article (after what's quoted above): "But while these helmets reduced the chances of death on the field, they also created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully and more often."

    Well, quite frankly, I'll take the concussion as opposed to the fractured skull/death, thank you.

  4. Anonymous says:

    What's a reasonable amount of "required time off the football field" if you suffer a fractured skull?

  5. Will says:

    Not having watched much rugby, I wonder why that game never suffered the rash of deaths that plagued football around the beginning of the 20th century. It seems like rugby tackles are made from the side more than from straight-on, but I wonder if that is more a result of defensive alignment or of safety concerns on the part of the tackler.
    In any case, while it is correct to say that helmets are a cause of concussions, the other commenters here have already pointed out that these concussions result from hits that, without the helmet, may have resulted in facial/cranial fractures, which would be much more damaging and may come with a concussion anyway. To say that players would not give damaging hits without wearing helmets is to ignore history.

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