How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Algorithm


T​here is an expression: Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. There should also be an expression about pointing loaded guns at yourself. Don't do it.


First off let me say to all the Bots out there: It was not fourth-and-1. It was closer to fourth-and-2. And if we are entering raw numerical data into an algorithm, then let us do better than that. It was fourth-and -1.73164275.


T​he Chargers held on to win, but shirked convention on the roads traveled.


"Obviously, the storybook [ending] would have been just to finish it right there and walk to victory lane," Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. "But that’s not how it went."


T​he book's story featured a last-minute twist of plot that viewers found unsettling—to put it mildly.


The decision to go from his own 46 while protecting a 30-28 lead with 1:14 left in Cleveland had even the most aggressive math-minded strategists clutching their pearls.


The Chargers came back from down 14-0 and were in position to win their second road game in a row despite missing Joey Bosa, Rashawn Slater, and Keenan Allen. Although they entered the game dead last in the NFL rushing (64.5 yards a game), the Chargers hewed the Browns defensive line for a season high 238 yards.


Despite the positives that came out of the Chargers performance, the post-game discussion of Staley's decision enveloped the minutia and made Staley the fulcrum of the story—again.


A gain of two yards would end the game. Failing would give Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett the ball ten yards from field goal range. Cleveland's kicker Cade York hit a 58-yard field goal against the Panthers. He has plenty of leg.


Punting would guarantee Cleveland one final possession, but from deep in its own territory and out of timeouts.


The Chargers tried drawing the Browns offside with a prolonged cadence before taking a timeout. When the teams rejoined the field, punter J.K. Scott was not amongst them. As a specialist, Scott is not frequently asked to make pivotal plays in high leverage moments.


S​cott's 37-yard punt is now forgotten, but it had to factor into the decision. Conventional wisdom suggested that the Chargers punt. So why didn't they?


“You know where I stand on that,” Staley said. “We believe in our process. We believe in our players on both sides, and we were coming out here on the road to win this game, not kick it and then go hope to win."


Staley trusted his offense to gain two yards and end the game. More succinctly, he trusted Justin Herbert. Why opt for Scott's foot when you can stake your fortunes on Herbert's arm?


W​hich is how the Chargers tried to complete a slant pattern to Mike Williams who, at the time, was facing man coverage against a rookie defensive back Martin Emerson Jr. and sitting on ten catches for 134 yards.


"Twenty-three on eighty-one. We liked it." Staley said referring to Emerson Jr. and Williams by their jersey numbers.


You know what happened next. The pass was broken up and the Browns took possession.

The Chargers are 5-of-11 on fourth-down conversions this season (45.5%, ranked 19th in NFL).


In Staley's first season as head coach, the Chargers converted 22 times on fourth down in 34 attempts (64.7%, ranked tied for fourth). The aggressive strategy has even coined an expression: 4th and Staley.


N​o one complains when the team converts; unfortunately, for the coach, that door does not swing both ways.


Aggressive calls that succeed lead to players and fans marveling at your chutzpah. (See this post-game soundbite from Tyreek Hill reflecting on his coach's 4th down aggression after a win against the Patriots.)


Aggressive swings that fail brings out the vipers. Tyreek Hill was not available to comment on the proportions of coach Staley's testicles.


C​hargers receiver Keenan Allen also found the decision not to punt...vexing?


I​n a tweet he later deleted, Allen used an acronym to question the divisive 4th-down call.

W​hen asked about Allen's tweet Staley said this:


“Anyone that’s been a part of competition knows that when you’re not a part of it, you can feel some type of way." Staley said.


"I’m understanding where he was at in that moment, because he’s not with his team. They’re in the fire. That’s the money down and he’s used to being out there."


H​ad Allen been on the field instead of in his living room then perhaps the play's execution leads to different results. We will never know.


Derwin James Jr., a star player and a team captain, was with Staley on the sidelines; both physically, and philosophically.


“We with ‘em. We going for it." He said. "Even though they didn’t get it, so what? We got to go out there and get a stop. It’s on us to get the stop. We believe in our offense. We want to go for it again. We don’t care.”


A few Browns players went as far as to say the decision felt “disrespectful.”


“I expect him to go for it, but it’s still disrespectful to us." Myles Garrett said. "I know he has an offense that was doing very well the whole day and he expects them to get the first down. But to us, that’s telling us that he can take advantage of us and we don’t take that very kindly.”


“You can punt the ball and make our offense drive all the way down the field with about a minute left. Instead you're going to go for it knowing that we're going to be in position already to win the game. So that's just a disrespectful play.”


While the players, and the fans, were inescapably in their feelings, Staley, was right in his wheelhouse.


"I believed our defense would get a stop if we didn’t make it, because I knew that we could cover them. … We know what that means to our group and playing that way. There’s no way I was taking our offense (off) the field.”


“You got to live with it when it doesn’t go down,” Staley said.


T​he Chargers were granted a reprieve when the Browns missed a 54-yard field goal and eventually secured the victory. Chargers devotees still couldn't shake the queasy feeling of a person who had just witnessed a game of Russian Roulette.


Maybe the negative outcome should not be so oft-putting to the process.


Which is exactly what the bots would say if they had a voice. ESPN's win probability model agreed with Staley's decision to go for it on fourth down Sunday. The bot determined that the winning percentage of going for it was 84.1%; the winning percentage to punt was 78.9%.


4​th Down Decision Bot concluded the same. The Twitter account—whose profile photo is the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's film 2001—calculated that going for the conversion increased the Chargers winning probability by 11.7%.


If you were wondering, 4th Down Decision Bot also advocated for the Chargers going for a 4th-and one from their own 18-yard line in the third quarter trailing by 3 to the Raiders in the season finale. So HAL has a proven history of aggression.



On Sunday, o​ne of the statistical models actually dissented! NFL's Next Gen Stats recommended that Staley punt after determining that the scales tilted towards victory by 0.2%.


If this were a Star Trek episode then this is the moment Captain Kirk would solicit Spock's opinion. Spock would undoubtedly repeat the numbers. Point. Two. Percent.


It is a razor's edge.


It it also one that the fans are unaccustomed to ruminating upon. That is because the fans (and certain members of the sports media) have been conditioned to conventional strategizing and have calcified opinions on the subject of protecting leads late in games. Decisions informed by statistical models are still relatively new to the game, which makes them as controversial as they are misunderstood.


A​llow me to clarify two things: First, no algorithm is making the decisions for these coaches. There simply isn't enough time between the plays to enter the data into their models. Coaches prepare for the decisions with modeling done in the days leading up to a game. Most teams have hired specialists who crunch the data into situational evaluations. Those models are simply another source of information that informs the decision-making process.


Human beings, like Staley, still have to weigh that information against their own emotions, instincts, and confidence levels.


S​econd, the outcomes, whether positive, or negative should not over influence the process. The outcome of the decision exists independently of the calculations that engineered it. That's how analytics work. It's just math. What the statistics are modeling for these coaches is predicative of a plurality of potential outcomes. The results are singular.


F​ans do not have the luxury, or the imagination, to see the infinite amount of possibilities that that one decision could result in if it were repeated ad infinitum.


A​nalytics have become a buzzword for certain people to criticize coaches who buck convention. It is a straw man for former coaches working in the media to pillar. Rex Ryan has perfected a performative conservatism from his soap box at ESPN. Easy to be arrogant behind a desk—with the luxury of hindsight.


Analytics are not some rogue software that is threatening to ruin the game. You half expect Skynet to send an assassin back in time to murder Staley's mom the way Rex Ryan and Bill Simmons talk about how math is ruining the game.


T​he truth is that analytics has been a part of the game since scouts began