Cheap Seats: Rushing To Judgment
By: Daniel Coleman 
Posted: 2006-12-11
Category: Washington Redskins News
There are different kinds of pain in the world of a football fan. This week's loss to the Eagles was the kind of hurt that has a bright side -- with the season gone there are other things to watch for than the final score. Fortunately, over a lifetime of watching the Skins, losses may be tough to take, but the wins more than make up for any suffering we must endure.

Unfortunately, however, there is a weekly torture that accompanies almost every game, regardless of the outcome. Is there anything worse to experience while watching the Redskins than the color commentary from the broadcasting booth?

There are times that I am tempted to return to grad school, if only to write a dissertation on the fallacies and inconsistencies that I put up with every week if only to hear some of the crowd noise. (If, in addition, writing pages of announcer refutations gave me a shot at a broadcasting job, all the better).

As it stands, it looks as though I’m destined to endure a life plagued by broadcasters trying to dumb down the game. The prescriptions for each team before the game, the second-guessing of coaches whenever a play goes wrong and the omniscience they exude all sicken me.

Not that I'm breaking new ground here. Plenty of people (including my fellow THN writer Stephen Zorio) have pointed to the glaring flaws in modern sports broadcasting. Still, at the risk of only increasing pain by commenting on commentary, I’ll give one example of a fallacy that I have seen often in the past couple of years (I am sure that you will recognize it). It starts with something like the following made-up statistic: “When the Redskins rush for over 100 yards, they are 4 and 1; when they don’t rush for 100 yards, they are 0 and 5.”

This, in itself, is a respectable statistic. Like highlighting the time of possession, turnovers, penalties, or any one player’s stats, looking at the “when they rush for” statistic focuses on one of the fundamentals of winning. But this can also be misleading, and becomes so the moment one starts to speak of “rushing 30 times” or “rushing for 100 yards” as the cause of winning rather than simply as a characteristic of a winning team.

This distinction is crucial, but the two concepts are generally conflated by commentators. Most often, we hear some variation of “the Redskins need to rush for more than 100 yards if they want to win.” In other words, rushing for 100 yards causes victory, anything less causes defeat. This is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.

I’ll give two examples for why this thinking is rubbish. Let’s say that the Redskins are down by 14 going into halftime. Clinton Portis has 12 rushes for 67 yards and is therefore on pace for 24 carries and 134 yards. If the Redskins come out of the locker room and give up a touchdown on the opponents’ first drive, what happens next?

Now the team is down by three scores with about a quarter and a half to play. It’s time to start working more quickly and decisively. With a bigger gap in the score, the play calling philosophy will shift from “wearing the defense out and eating up clock” to a more rapidly-paced, passing-based offensive scheme. Portis may have had 12 carries in the first half, but as the clock ticks down in the second half – assuming the Redskins remain behind -- he will see fewer carries.

If the Redskins blindly stick to the “rushing for 100 yards equals victory” equation, they will use up valuable time; the later in the game it gets, the more damaging this will be. Clearly, then, whether the Redskins rush 10 times or 500 times has little to do with how they will handle a large point deficit.

I don’t have to reach too far for my second example. On Sunday against the Eagles, Ladell Betts had a career day – 33 carries for 177 yards – in a loss. Whatever your magic formula for rushing to victory, it can’t overcome costly interceptions and the defense giving up just a few big plays. Betts was phenomenal but Sunday’s game falls outside of any predictions based on the number of rush attempts or the rushing yards gained.

Every situation is different, and this is precisely why one should be skeptical whenever a color commentator circles the “when they rush for” statistic and spends the rest of the afternoon deriding Joe Gibbs as if he’s a senile man that doesn’t “get it.” After all, if these commentators really knew the secret for winning football games, wouldn’t they be coaching?

Do the best teams run the ball effectively, control time of possession, limit turnovers and minimize penalties? Yes. Is it a mistake to make any of these factors the cause of winning? Yes. Instead of approaching football as a great mystery that has yet to be solved, TV broadcasters would do well to stick with descriptions rather than giving grand advice.

Of course, I can always hold out hope that a television will one day have a “crowd noise only” option. Until then, be sure to check out the view with us from the Cheap Seats.
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