Averse to Winning

Kansas City Chief’s Dick Vermeil made a call that few coaches are willing to make. Peter King describes it in his SI.com column:

Five seconds left in the game. Oakland 23, Kansas City 20. Chiefs ball at the Raiders’ 1. First down. No timeouts left for the Chiefs. Conventional wisdom says: Take a quick and safe shot throwing it into the end zone, and if it’s incomplete, kick the field goal to send it to overtime. But this wasn’t a conventional time, Vermeil thought. “The last two times [the Raiders] had the ball, they went down the field and scored,” Vermeil said later. “I figured if we lost the toss and kicked off, they may win the game right there.” So Vermeil, leaving himself open to get skewered if the strategy didn’t work, decided to go for it. The Chiefs called a Larry Johnson run up the gut.

And Johnson scored. “You can’t say enough about that final play,”’ Trent Green said. Agreed. Great call. And I wouldn’t have ripped him if it didn’t work. His decision makes all the sense in the world. Would you rather risk it all on a one-yard rush with a running back who’s had a good day? Or would you rather risk it all on a coin flip?

These kind of situations crop of with regularity in football. As King’s comments imply, coaches usually elect the “safe” option. Sometimes that’s appropriate because a coach may view his chances as improved by extending the game. In many cases, however, putting the outcome of the game in an all-or-nothing, single play framework runs against primeval urge for less risk rather than more. Coaches frequently steer away even when it may improve chances of winning (in an average or expected value sense). Vanderbilt’s coach appeared ready to make a similar move against Florida on Saturday night until a 15-yard penalty changed the odds.

Such decisions are even more difficult to make when the opportunity to “win it” is not dangled on a single play. For example, in the playoffs against the Colts last year, Vermeil decided to go for it on a 4th-and-a-few yards late (but not at the very end). The call made perfect sense. The Chiefs had not stopped the Colts all day. One first down by the Colts and the game would be over anyway. Still, Vermeil agonized over the decisions, finally opting to go for it. In a similar situation in an Oregon State game a few years back, the announcers went ape (as King admits he would have) when the Oregon State coach made a similar call and didn’t make it. In their (highly risk averse view), why not live to fight another day? In contrast, the philosophy expressed by Peter King makes sense — why not try to win the game when you have a good chance. The same idea is expressed by some of the better no-limit poker players, “you’ve gotta be willing to die in order to live.” In other words, dying a slow death that gives little, if any, shot at winning is not preferable to dying a quick death that, at least, offers a realistic hope.

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Author: Brian Goff

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