ESPN Interview

ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown will be doing a piece on 4th down decisions this weekend. The focus will center around Bill Belichick and his thoughts on the topic in an interview they did with him a few years ago. At the time, they also interviewed Dr. David Romer, author of 'Do Firms Maximize.' Yesterday, ESPN re-interviewed Romer, and interviewed me too. I'm anxious to see how it turns out.

I'm told it will probably air a few minutes before noon EST on Sunday. Set your DVRs now!

ESPN also talked about my take on '4th-and-2-gate' on the Monday Night Football pre-game earlier this week. A lot of people were harsh on Matt Millen and Steve Young for their comments, but I think they asked exactly the right questions. Young said, 'Is that in context? I'd want to see that in context.' I presume he wants to know if the score and time remaining were considered. Millen asked, 'But does that take into account the Colts offense?' They were rightfully skeptical, but they zeroed in on the heart of the matter immediately. I have to give them a lot of credit.

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48 Responses to “ESPN Interview”

  1. Anonymous says:

    is that noon eastern?

  2. Brian Burke says:

    Yes. I'll edit the post and add that. Thanks.

  3. Jason says:

    I assume you gave props to all the talented and knowledgeable commenters on your blog, right? RIGHT!?! ;)

  4. Ryan says:

    I didn't see that segment, but I saw Steve Young after the game talking about the decision, and that was essentially his point... he said as a quarterback, he would be OK with the general idea of going for it in a situation like that, but the context mattered. The two timeouts they burned mattered (they couldn't challenge OR call a timeout if they saw something they didn't like), not to mention the fact they looked very indecisive about it (sent the punt team out momentarily) and had no momentum going their way.

    As far as knowing the situation of a game and what you think you can get away with, I think he's in a good position to do that and has a valid point, and I liked that he was pretty much the only guy who didn't automatically dismiss the idea.

    (As an aside, I think one reason most people are so anti-going-for-it at that spot on the field is the stigma attached to "field goal range," as if punting is preventing you from automatically losing points. That obviously doesn't come into play here, just something to consider.)

  5. Chase says:

    Congrats, Brian!

  6. Shattenjager says:

    Major congratulations. And props to ESPN for recognizing the right person to talk to. I will do my best to get to see it, even though I'm not going to get to watch any football this week.

  7. James says:

    Glad to see you are now being nationally recognized (between the interview, ESPN references and MMBQ as well) for all of your work!

  8. John Candido says:

    Congrats Brian. That's awesome. You are truly pioneering stats in football on a major level. I would imagine that it's only a matter of time before you get invited to do some work with a team or write a book. Thanks for opening up all of these doors for the rest of us.

  9. Zach says:

    Great news. I presume that you essentially repeated what you wrote in your follow-up article?

  10. Sampo says:


  11. Tarr says:

    Congrats, Brian. FWIW, expect your comments to be sliced, diced, and possibly taken out of context. That's just how these things go, typically.

    All the same, I'm looking forward to watching the piece.

  12. bytebodger says:

    Your work in this area is impeccable and I am glad to see that ESPN is at least taking some notice. I will definitely DVR this (at the time of airing, I will be tailgating outside Jacksonville Municipal Stadium).

    Although I'm glad to see that you are at least invited to the conversation, I am doubtful that they will do this story much justice.

    Sunday NFL Countdown lasts for (seemingly) about 13.5 hours. This piece on 4th-down decisions will probably last for about 4 minutes. In that 4 minutes, your comments will get franken-clipped down to about 12 seconds. The other 3:48 will be given to the naysayers.

    After the piece, the Countdown studio crew will no doubt take one more opportunity to tell us all how stupid Belichick was.

  13. Becephalus says:

    Great news.

    It is nice to hear ESPN is at least making a cursory effort to get to the heart of the matter. It is always frustrating when they lionize the people doing statistical analysis (Morey etc.), but then demean them when their findings are the slightest bit out of the "ordinary".

    Really allows you to see who their target market is and how far they are on the info-tainment side instead of the journalism side of the equation. It sounds like some of the brighter people there either read this or have people they respect who do.

  14. zlionsfan says:

    I think that's the only way that research like this eventually becomes common knowledge. At first when you talk about it, pretty much everyone dismisses you. As you keep at it, people who read and understand what you're saying begin to follow you and spread the word. Over time, you build up enough momentum and combine with enough other people doing similar work that eventually people accept what you've been saying all along.

    Hopefully this is another step in that direction! If not, we'll be making fun of some commentators for a while ...

  15. Brian Burke says:

    Thanks. I'm fairly certain the spin of the story will be very 'pro-stats' and in favor of going for it on 4th down more often. The only thing I fear (besides watching me make a fool of myself on national tv) is that once they throw it back to the studio, Ditka and Jackson will throw the whole thing out the window. But maybe not--we'll see.

  16. Elmer says:

    Congrats! Have loved your analysis of Belichick's decision and was initially puzzled by all the surrounding uproar. It made me wonder whether, using your model, we could account for how such uproar impacts in-game decisions. Here's what I came up with.

    Suppose there were two types of coaches, the percentage coach and the conventional coach. A percentage coach doesn't care how you win or lose since its all about maximizing your expected utility (i.e., WP).

    In contrast, for a conventional coach, it does matter how you lose. A conventional coach wants to win, but prefers to lose conventionally rather than lose unconventionally. That is, for a conventional coach, the payoff values are the following: win = 1; lose conventionally = 0; lose unconventionally = -1.

    Why would a coach care how he (or she) loses? he cares because of the uproar involved. If you play it the conventional way, you may not win, but you won't be blamed for losing by doing something "stupid" or "risky" or "arrogant." So it's not that a conventional coach plays not to win, but, rather, plays so that they can't be blamed.

    Using these payoffs impacts the expected utility calculations in the following way:

    Going for it = 0.79*1 + 0.21*-1 = 0.58
    Punting = 0.7*1 + 0.2*0 = 0.7

    Factoring in the payoffs of the conventional coaches lowers the expected utility of going for it by 0.21 or the percentage chance of failing to convert. Further more, punting now becomes the more rational choice.

    I think most football coaches and most fans are conventional in just this way. Belichick is not, though, of course, this experience may change that. At any rate, it may help explain all the post-game hand-wringing.

    Side note: for a conventional coach facing this situation, the conversion rate would have to be 85% in order for that coach to go for it.

  17. Dave says:

    Simmons was harsh on the 4th and 2 call, but if you read him carefully, he seems to largely blame the the particular play call (empty backfield). Remember that the decision to go for it and the play call are two separate issues.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I'm not sure I'm going to read Bill Simmons anymore. Does he even think about the stuff that he writes?

    "(Important note: If you were sitting next to a bookie after the Pats blew fourth-and-2, and that bookie said to you, "The odds of the Colts winning here are 34 percent; I will give you 3-to-1 odds that they score," would you have taken that wager in a millisecond or a kajillasecond? I think we can throw that number out. Whatever.)"

    First of all, the odds are 2-1 on a 34%. Has he completely flunked math class? Never done an odds simulation in his life? 66/34 = 2-1!!!

    Second, I was on Matchbook at the time and those were roughly the odds. A little better for the Colts making it but still in the neighborhood.

    If he thinks it was a virtual guarantee the Colts were going to win...

    Its amazing how much of the rest of the article falls into the usual psychobabble of sportswriters. The Colts were able to stop the play not because Faulk bobbled the ball but because they played so much harder because the Pats "disrespected" them by calling the play in the first place. Please!!!!

  19. Edward Lee says:

    The worst piece of the Simmons diatribe was when he pulled out the figures for how often teams score 3 TDs to come back and win in the fourth quarter. One can only conclude that Simmons travels with not one, but two bombs in his carry-on bag whenever he boards an airplane.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Its like the people that play blackjack and make some absurdly large bet when they have lost 4 hands in a row.

    "The odds are really high against losing 5 in a row so I figured I'd be safe...."


    I think I've figured it out. Most people hate stats because they are constantly being fed bullshit stats and asked to extrapolate without accounting for regression to the mean, small sample size, the possibility of coincidence or anything else.

    [great hitter] is 2 for 20 lifetime against [journeyman pitcher]...

    So and so team has won 7 of their last 8 following a loss on artificial turf.

    When those spurious trends inevitably reverse themselves, people conclude all statistical analysis is worthless.

  21. bytebodger says:

    As a primer for today's festivities, Mitch Albom was on The Sports Reporters insisting, several times, that Belichick's call was absolutely the wrong play STATISTICALLY. Of course, he didn't provide a single statistic to back up his argument, but he clearly thought he could bolster his case by emphatically stating the correct "statistical" play.

    Conversely, Bob Ryan from Boston was staunch in his support of the call and refuted Albom's putative statistical analysis.

  22. John Candido says:

    Rocket scientist? Way to get a good spin from the ESPN guys. The interview was great. The post analysis was hilariously naive. It was as if they saw equations and immediately disregarded everything that was said in the piece. In their flustering they seemed to become more threatened and started using default words like good call, bad call, coaching, teamwork and all of the other great football cliches. I wish NFL coaching was a market you could build a hedge fund around. We would all be very rich.

  23. Unknown says:

    I saw the segment on ESPN's Sunday pre-game show that mentions this site. I took me a considerable amount of times/attempts to get to this site, so it seems like quite a few other people saw the same program.

    Very impressive webpage. Good job on ESPN as well!

  24. Brian Burke says:

    Thanks. They used about 1% of the interview, which is the nature of tv. By the way, I am not a rocket scientist or even an aerospace engineer. That was my major in college, and it's useful in my line of work, but I'd never seriously refer to myself that way. I suppose it enhances my authority on math, but I'm not a mathematician or statistician. I'm a naval tactics consultant in my day job, and math and stats are just tools.

    The producer and reporter (Greg Garber), were really great. They're sharp and asked really good questions. They can call me whatever they like. I only asked them not to call me a "blogger."

    I liked the line from Billick--"If someone could explain this to me, it would be really useful." That's kind of my thrust. You don't need fancy equations or calculus to get it. You just need to know how often teams win in certain situations, and how likely you are to get to those situations. It's something anyone can understand.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Missed the segment. Anyway we could get a summary?

  26. Jeff Clarke says:

    The tide is definitely turning on this issue.

    What I thought about during the entire interview is what would happen if you had the same interview 60 years ago and the subject wasn't fourth downs, the subject was forward passes...

    Believe it or not, the forward pass was once a very controversial subject. Coaches were so conservative that it was generally accepted that you never throw the ball unless you had no choice. The coaches that first started to throw were pretty successful with it.

    You can imagine what the debate would have been like...

    99% of coaches don't throw. How could you ever even consider throwing on first down? I don't care about all the studies saying throwing would work. Even if its right, its wrong.

    etc etc

  27. Jeff Clarke says:


    Jim Zorn is no longer my hero.

    Can you look at the decision to kick and not try one more play with 15 seconds left in the first half?

    A kick was probably worth 2.7 points (90% * 3 points).

    A sack or int would have netted them -2.7 points. A TD would have netted 4.3. An incomplete would have been a push.

    I think a TD is at least twice as likely as a sack or interception there.

    I don't know how anyone can ever justify this...

    Yet more weak tight coaching.

  28. Anonymous says:

    "I liked the line from Billick--"If someone could explain this to me, it would be really useful." That's kind of my thrust. You don't need fancy equations or calculus to get it. You just need to know how often teams win in certain situations, and how likely you are to get to those situations. It's something anyone can understand"

    You think that Billick was being genuine.

    I took it as he was being sarcastic. Billick has a sort of "proud to be a dumbass" personality that I find really grating.

    He also said with all seriousness that any situation where you don't know what will happen is a 50/50 because either it happens or it doesn't.

    Yay, I have a 50% shot at being elected President in 2012.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Yep, and I have a 50/50 shot at winning the lottery and cleaning our vegas this week.

    If we took his comments and applied it to the game the colts had a 50/50 shot at winning regardless if the pats punted or went for it. Therefore, this argument should never had taken place.

  30. John Candido says:

    Absolutely. That's why I thought it was hilarious that such a simple concept was dismissed out of, what seemed to me, pure hubris and voluntary negligence on the part of Berman, Ditka, Johnson and Jackson. Many people, especially successful ones, dismiss things simply because they don't understand it. Garber did a phenomenal job of breaking it down though. Conditional probability is not a hard concept to convey to people not familiar with statistics. The piece was excellent and displayed you in a very favorable way. Just like it took casinos thirty years to figure out that Ed Thorp was correct about winning at Blackjack, it will probably be the same before the dominance of coaches like Belicick highlights the ignorance of the rest of the league.

  31. John Candido says:

    Quote of the segment: (I actually like Jackson a lot)

    "The game of football isn't a computer"

    Those poor guys had no clue what that piece was about.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Al Michaels just said "Even rocket scientists have debated this..."

    Dan Patrick:

    "The percentages don't factor in Peyton Manning getting the ball in the end"


  33. Anonymous says:

    Any links to the segment? I missed it this morning.

  34. Anonymous says:

    Dungy last week:

    "You have to play the percentages"

    Dungy this week:

    "The percentages are baloney"

    The least he could have done would have been to explain what exactly he thought "the percentages" were.

    Frankly, I think Dungy might be the most overrated coach in history.

    His team is now 10-0 without him and he didn't accomplish anything back when he was in Tampa.

    Manning was always the real coach of that team.

  35. Anonymous says:

    I'm guessing consistency and accuracy really isnt high on the list of what it takes to be a sports commentator/analyst for nfl football.

  36. James Sinclair says:

    For a second there I had a glimmer of hope that one of the NBC guys would admit they were wrong--not necessarily wrong to say that Belichick should've punted, but wrong to assume the issue wasn't even debatable. Alas, they did not. Has anyone this week admitted they were wrong?

    I loved Costas' point about how Colts fans, given a choice, would almost unanimously vote for a punt. It really does seem like, on some subconscious level, people know what the right decision is.

  37. Jeff Clarke says:

    "I loved Costas' point about how Colts fans, given a choice, would almost unanimously vote for a punt. It really does seem like, on some subconscious level, people know what the right decision is."

    Theres been all sorts of psychological experiments that have proved that people instinctually pick the "conservative" option even if that is irrational.

    There isn't a doubt in my mind that any single person claiming Belichick should have punted would also claim the Colts should have accepted the punt if they had the option. Clearly these people would have been wrong on one of these occasions.

    Its actually a good rule in any 2 player zero sum game theory situation (ie business negotiations). Think carefully about what your opponent would want you to do and give serious consideration to doing the opposite.

  38. John says:

    I missed the interview, is it online anywhere?

  39. Tarr says:

    I also missed the interview - vagaries of parenthood and all. I couldn't get to the TV until 15 minutes to gametime, and all I got was some blather about cover corners.

    Has anyone noticed that NOBODY in the mainstream media is noting that Mike Tomlin lost the Pittsburgh/KC game by NOT going for it on 4th down from midfield, both at the end of regulation and in overtime?

  40. James says:

    Jeff, I don't know if Zorn can be blamed for not attempting a TD with 15 seconds left in the half. I would imagine if he lost play calling duties it wasn't his choice whether to go for it there or not.

    Anon, I don't think it's fair to say Dungy was overrated. Tampa Bay, with all of Dungy's players and system, won the Superbowl the year after he left. It was Gruden who did nothing with it for the next 10(?) years. Same thing is happening now in Indy. Dungy set up such a good system it's running by itself. Judge how good a coach Dungy was 5 years from now.

    Finally, who is this other James fellow?

  41. Brian Burke says:

    Tarr-I definitely noticed. After each game I run my script to get the play-by-play. Along the way it calculates the 'what-if' WPA for going for every 4th down. I sort all the 4th down plays, and that Steelers punt came up as the most obvious mistake. It looks like it cost about .11 WP.

    Is it just because I notice more now, or do teams really seem to be going for it more often these days?

    I don't know if the ESPN piece is online. It was a great story, but you're not missing much (of me). For my part they went over the math for the 4th and 2 play. And they had 20 seconds of me saying how most coaches don't know how advantageous it is to go for it. The cheesiest part was the 'B-roll' they made me shoot walking down the street.

  42. John Candido says:

    Haha, that's when they were really trying to sell you as a rocket scientist, since strolling around town in a sports jacket is what they do apparently. At least they didn't have you hunched over your computer updating your blog. It could have been worse.

  43. James Sinclair says:

    "Finally, who is this other James fellow?"

    Just a bandwagon fan of this site. No confusion intended--my display name has been changed.

  44. Jonathan says:

    "Is it just because I notice more now, or do teams really seem to be going for it more often these days?"

    I'm wondering the same thing. Some color commentator criticized a football team for having a return man instead of rushing the punter with 11 players, because there were only 7 seconds left to go in the half so who cares if they nail a 65 yard punt and down it at the one? Then he said,

    "I don't know what the percentage chance of a punt being returned for a touchdown is, vs. the chance of blocking a punt, but I would have tried to block the punt."

    So on some level he was was conscious of the statistical ramifications, and he qualified his statement as such.

    There was a play in the Harvard-Yale game where one team tried a fake punt on 4th-22. That initially seemed like a ridiculously bold play and a foolish risk, but perhaps they have a terrible punting game (it IS the Ivy League, so I doubt the punters average anywhere near 38 yards per punt). I think the play netted 15 yards, so maybe the coach figured their useless punter would have only kicked it 15 yards anyway. Or maybe he was just taking a cue from that high school coach who hasn't punted in 3 years.

    But it was a contrarian go-for-it play.

  45. coldbikemessenger says:

    Brian you were great on espn. I wished they had shown more

  46. Brian Burke says:

    Thanks, cbm.

  47. James Sinclair says:

    The fake punt in that Harvard-Yale game seems a lot harder to justify. For one thing, according to the article I read the Yale punter is considered the best in the Ivy League and was averaging something like 50 yards over his last [some amount of punts that's not nearly enough to draw a conclusion from]. Also, Yale was only up by 3.

    There's always an argument to be made. Maybe...

    -They thought the fake had a high chance of success since there's no way Harvard saw it coming.
    -They figured if it didn't work, Harvard would just settle for a field goal and Yale would have a chance in overtime and/or have plenty of time for another drive, whereas a long touchdown drive by Harvard would pretty much end the game.

    But I can't convince myself that going for it made sense (which might be the first time that's ever happened--I'm used to assessing plays as either "reasonable" or "unreasonably conservative;" I can't remember "unreasonably agressive" ever being an option. Another sign things might be changing).

  48. Unknown says:

    I tivoed the program, transferred it to my computer, edited it down to just the segment with Brian in it, and uploaded it to youtube. The video can be found here:

    The video is just Berman's introduction and the produced segment. I also have a version that includes the discussion that takes place afterwards, that I can upload if anyone is interested.

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