Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dick Jauron and Decision Theory

I hesitated posting this week since the Bills (miraculously? luckily?) prevailed over the Jets on Sunday. However, after thinking about the game for a day, I realized that notwithstanding the win, Dickie Don't still exhibits a fundamental flaw in his coaching style - a failure to correctly analyze the possibilities in front of him and make the best decision.

Some people think that outcomes are all that matter. These are the people who bet on hunches, who think the hit and run and sacrifice bunt make a lot of strategic sense, and, unfortunately, the same people who rush up the middle for no gain to set up a potential game winning 46 yard field goal. On the road. In swirling winds.

Decision Theory holds that making optimal decisions in the long run will have better outcomes than playing hunches or "going against the grain". Poker players know this. Any person whose job depends on strategy and different expected outcomes from decisions should know this. Dick Jauron clearly doesn't.

Just to recap the game situation - Bills have the ball at the Jets 49 with 2 time outs and almost 4 minutes to play. Backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has been less than stellar, but has been successful with short passes and screens to the flat. Playcalling from that point:
  • Jackson no gain
  • Fitzpatrick to Evans for 12 yards
  • Jackson, 2 runs for 9 yards to the Jets 29.
  • Timeout Bills (with 1:18 left)
At this point, you're looking at a 46 yard field goal if you gain no further yards. The Bills still have 1 time out and 1:18 left. The Bills have Lee Evans and Terrell Owens. The Bills are 1-4 and tied 13-13 with the Jets, playing on the road. The Bills are averaging a paltry 3.4 yards/carry on the day. Aren't at least 1 or 2 pass plays in order? Why not send Owens down the seam, or on a deep out and if it isn't there Fitzpatrick can throw it away (he is a Harvard man, after all).

Instead, Fitzpatrick runs for a first down on a broken play, Jauron sends Jackson into the pile (for a loss of 2) and lets the clock simply run down to 4 seconds, settling for a 46 yarder in the wind.

Lindell was 10/15 last year from 40-49 yards. He is now 3/5 this year from that distance. So Jauron was settling for (at best) a 60-67% chance of success, sacrificing a chance to gain additional yardage and get into a more comfortable spot for Lindell (11/11 from 30-39 yards last year). And why? Concerned about a turnover? Doesn't that show lack of confidence in your highly-paid all-pro offensive players? A bad decision in this case, clearly a decision with a lower expected value, ultimately resulted in a success (the Bills eventually won in overtime), but over time, these conservative decisions are what, year after year, cost the Bills close games (stretching all the way back to the Dallas MNF game 2 years ago).

Unfortunately, the football press (Lombardi) lauded Jauron after the game for his "professionalism" and getting his guys to play hard. I understand there is a contrast between the effort level in Washington and the effort level in Buffalo, but that's the definition of damning with faint praise, and it's maddening that Jauron has this rep of getting his guys to play hard which seems to shield him (in the national media at least) against criticism of his actual, you know, job performance.

Bottom line: if the Bills can't beat the Jets after forcing 6 turnovers, that's a monumental failure - a 3 point OT win is not something to assign credit to the coach for.

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