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Does Ron Rivera actually not understand analytics?

No.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve repeatedly defended Ron Rivera’s forthrightness on this site, particularly against claims that he was being duplicitous about his intentions in dealing with players. Last week though, my steadfast defense of straight shooting Ron was nearly tested. Rivera was interviewed on the Rich Eisen show, and in the aftermath, the twitterati seized upon a single passage from his 6+ minute discussion, and spun Rivera as an analytics troglodyte.

“If I do what the analytics said, and it says 9 times out of 10 you’re going to complete it, there’s that 1 time out of 10 that you don’t. So how do you know if you’re going to be that 1 time out of 10 that isn’t successful?”

So, I went back to listen to the interview myself to see what I could make of it. The piece began with a very cool story about how Rivera, early in his career received some helpful advice from former Hall of Fame Coach John Madden.

After his second season, Rivera was 3-13 in games decided by 6 points or less. The Panthers owner, Jerry Richardson, suggested Rivera reach out to Madden. Madden instructed Rivera to go back and take detailed notes on the 13 games he lost, and then asked him what he learned from watching those games.

“Well, the biggest thing I learned was I went by the book,” explained Rivera. Madden asked, “You went by the book? What book?” Rivera responded, “you know, the one where it says you kick it here in this situation, and in this game.” “How did that turn out?” Madden inquired. “Well...” Rivera stammered. Madden exclaimed, “Forget this book, go by your gut instinct, you’ve played enough football, you’ve coached enough football to go by your gut. Go by how the game feels. Do those things.”

Rivera reflected on Madden’s comments as the Panthers rolled into the 2013 season. Against the Bills, up 3, late in the 4th quarter, Rivera again went by “the book”, kicking another field goal, and going up by 6. The Bills subsequently took the ball down the field, scored a TD, plus the extra point, and won the game. Rivera was sick with himself for completely disregarding Madden’s advice. He was so distracted by the loss, he ran a red light and nearly had a car accident.

The following week, they played the Giants at home. In their first series, he went for it twice on fourth down, and succeeded both times. He was subsequently very aggressive on fourth down for the rest of the game. They won 38-0, their highest point total and most lopsided victory of the season.

In the fifth game of the season, in Minnesota, he did it again. He went for it on 4th and 2, and Mike Tolbert scored a TD. The Panthers won 35-10. After the game, a reporter wrote that Ron was “gambling like a riverboat gambler,” and “Riverboat Ron” was born. The Panthers proceeded to go on an 8-game winning streak.

In many ways, the story Rivera told was entirely consistent with an analytics mindset. I’ve written in the past about why the team should go for it much more on 4th down, based on well-established analytics data, and Rivera’s anecdote seems to corroborate those statistics, an example of which is below:

Brian Burke, now of ESPN, formerly of Advanced Football Analytics, boils his analysis down to an easy-to-understand graph (see below), essentially finding that, with less than 2 yards to go, it almost always makes sense to go for it on 4th. Near the 50 yard line, it makes sense to go for it even on 4th and 10 or so. What some might find surprising is even within traditional “field goal range” (at or past the opponent’s 30 yard line), with 5 yards or less to go, it makes sense to go for it, sacrificing the relatively likely 3 points for an improved shot at 7.

But it didn’t end there. Rich Eisen then proceeded to ask Rivera what role analytics plays now in the NFL. Eisen also brought up Rivera’s going for 2 against the Giants this past season, and ultimately losing. “What is that push/pull you deal with at times,” Eisen asked.

“Really, it’s about momentum and stuff like that to me,” responded Rivera. He then gave the example of having football discussions with coaches like Norv Turner about how to deal with certain situations, like going for 2, down by 14, when you score a TD. Rivera said, if you go for 2 in that situation and fail, you kill your comeback momentum, so it might not be the best option there.

“The analytics are there to indicate whether or not this is the right time to do it. Because I’ve had situations where we’ve gone for it with the analytics where it didn’t happen out, and I’ve been told, “that’s ok, because you did what the analytics said.” And to me, I struggle with that because if I did what the analytics said and it says “9 times out of 10 you’re going to complete it” there’s that 1 time out of 10 you don’t. You know what I’m saying? So how do you know if you’re going to be that 1 time out of 10 you’re going to be successful? There is no guarantee. You can tell me all you want, “it’s 99%, hey that’s good.” Yeah, but, what if you’re that 1%. What if that 1 time it doesn’t work? Nobody talks about that until it happens, and then it’s “oh it’s a bad decision.” No, it’s not a bad decision. You just don’t know. You can argue it all you want.”

In that context - and the context of the Madden anecdote - it’s fairly clear that Rivera is actually defending the use of analytics, with a bit of situational circumstances blended into the mix. His final point, about when people “talk about it” is entirely consistent with the research in this field as well. And, it explains why an anti-analytics mindset is so difficult to shake.

Economist David Romer, in his 2005 paper, “Do Firms Maximize, Evidence from Professional Football,” offered that, “coaches don’t try to maximize their team’s chances of winning games as much as they maximize their job security.” Essentially, the notion is that it is better to lose in a risk averse way than to increase your chances of winning in a way that is perceived to be “riskier.”

Ron’s absolutely right. You may fail 1 out of 10 times - trying for two points, or going for it on 4th down - and when you do, you’ll probably have to defend that decision to the people who don’t understand analytics. But, thankfully, Ron Rivera doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Poll

Are you comfortable that Ron Rivera has a reasonable understanding of how to use analytics in the modern NFL?

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  • 79%
    Yes.
    (1051 votes)
  • 9%
    No.
    (131 votes)
  • 10%
    "Analytics" what now?
    (137 votes)
1319 votes total Vote Now