Bombast Revisited; A Partial List of My Cognitive Biases

Stochastic Football 


Bombast Revisited


It's said a joke explained is a joke ruined. So how about satire? I wrote a loudmouth, accusatory post. It was fun. My intention: to appropriate the tools of popular sports punditry: attention grabbing headline, us vs. them framing, a hectoring tone, abundant self-assurance, straw men galore, unsourced data and an adamantine sense of moral authority. And here's what happened: the response was almost universally negative, and often outright caustic. But the post netted big traffic: the most since Brian's point/counterpoint on Aaron Rodger's extension, and more than double any post written since May.

One of the ongoing themes of Advanced NFL Stats and statistical analysis at large, is that tradition, the plausible, the presumed way something must be done is often the wrong way. Luckily, Advanced NFL Stats doesn't run on page views. And much more insightful, penetrating and considered works, like the ones done by Brian, have a home, even if a small percentage of the population understands or gives a hoot about game theory. But that's uncommon. Most people that write about sports have some kind of aspiration of doing it professionally. And making a living in modern terms means page views, followers, influence—good or bad. What's his noggin on ESPN's Fresh Take is not living hand to mouth, even if his job may be described as a queer kind of foolery, lacking both insight and humor. Skip comments on the news, and when his commentary is most awry, novel only in its utter meretriciousness, and thus subject to refutation, sport for ridicule, it is also most painfully relevant. When he's most bad he is most successful.

Doug Farrar pointed to this piece on the “hot take.” It's interesting stuff, and well written. One take away cannot be ignored: The hot take is effective. The hot take is here to stay. People crave opinions even opinions that anger them—that they totally disagree with. And they want opinions about news, about those things they may end up discussing with others. It's a pop culture. Try having a discussion about a non-contemporary book outside of an English department.

Can statistical analysis ever hope to thrive so long as it stays above the fray? refuses to indulge in knee-jerk commentary? sees the shuttering error bars around moral judgment? Maybe someone can run a linear regression on the correlation between popular appeal and attention grabbing headlines, us vs. them framing, a hectoring tone, abundant self-assurance, straw men galore, unsourced data and an adamantine sense of moral authority. Actually, I bet someone at ESPN already has.

Maybe circumspection, a dispassionate tone and detailed analysis are the ground game of sports writing: aesthetically pleasing, classically valued and ultimately counterproductive. I don't know. And therein lies the problem. I'm supposed to tell you what to think. Doubt can neither be championed nor excoriated. It asks rather than answers questions. To borrow from Thomas Pynchon, doubt is childlike wonder competing in a market that demands childish certainty.

A Partial List of My Cognitive Biases

Seeking something to write about other than the latest DUI arrest, seeking content that did not rely on exploiting others content, I used to diagram every play of every Seahawks game and do my best to annotate and qualify every Seahawks' player's performance. It took a long damn time. And sometimes I just couldn't finish in time.

Broadcasts of American football are TheInvisible Gorilla made entertainment. I would watch a game, alone, notebook in hand, doing my darnedest to rise above fixating on the ball carrier. And when the game was over, I would smash out a postgame “analysis,” sharing all those pithy insights, my “expertise.” Crack a beer, relax and awake to the hangover of a week long audit. It never stopped surprising me just how wrong I was.

That was the point though, to be wrong and know it—to know. Apart from non-derivative content, watching and re-watching a game gave me precious and all too rare confidence, real confidence. As the lamentation of many a man goes: the difference between confidence and arrogance is substance. What's so attractive about a confident man? What makes him confident. I could say Brian Russell was bad and cite a dozen plays in which he had failed. I could say Brandon Mebane was good and cite a dozen plays in which he had kicked butt. Substance. It was kinda marvelous.

After a season's worth of monomania, of crazy hours put in for at best an incomplete cataloging of performance, what I ended up with was less science than natural philosophy. A sort of gridiron Linnaeus naming and describing and sketching out plays in my notebooks, largely uncontested in my observations. But where Linnaeus was a great man, expanding his world, I was a putzer, running a blog. We shared a susceptibility to cognitive bias.

Allow me to reminiscence on a few times I was crazy wrong and why:


Lofa Tatupu was the perfect amalgam of what former Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell, now retired, did well and what ruined his career. So good yet so barely-talented enough to make it in the NFL, Tatupu was legitimately sensational his first three seasons. His total EPA of 179.2 was second only to Brian Urlacher (200.8) among inside linebackers from 2005-2007. Consider that an accurate quantification of how cool it was to watch Tatupu work: 24 touchdowns worth of tackles for a loss, interceptions and A-gap blitzes.

Then: 2008.

Range around the corner, ability to shed blockers, coverage—myriad injuries had eaten up Tatupu's quickness and agility. He became a liability. A year later he would effectively be out of the league.

I distrusted what I saw because what I knew. Tatupu had been excellent. Tatupu succeeded in an unorthodox manner. Instead of seeing a player failing, failing his way out of the NFL, I saw a down year for a great player. I anchored my evaluation to a bygone talent, someone I had hoped would become Mike Singletary, and didn't see that player was gone.

In retrospect, I made the same mistake with Ruskell himself: anchoring my opinion of him to his early success, that first-season run to the Super Bowl, and ignoring season after season of bad drafting and questionable free-agent signings.

Attentional Bias

Brian Russell really wasn't good. Two years of watching him do this ...

and this ...

didn't clarify my opinion.

It's difficult, the season so short, every play so precious, to remember ugliness is not truth, and SHAT (Swears Hurled At Television) is not a real metric.

Of greater national interest, the infamous butt-fumble, this ...

seems to have been the tipping point for Mark Sanchez. Nothing happened in that oh so embarrassing sequence of events to reveal anything about Sanchez not better revealed by now over 1,800 attempts of scuds, wobblers and rifle shots to unseen defenders, but it certainly looked sad-trombone, cringe-inducing and holy-crap-this-guy's-a-professional?

Contrast Effect

Which maybe explains some of the big-time optimism among Jets fans for Geno Smith? I don't know. Optimism for draft picks thrives on contrast. Any player even sniffed at by NFL talent evaluators is a standout talent among college athletes. Pit one against enough stooges and you can explain my irrational exuberance for guys like Trevor Laws, Everette Brown and Knowshon Moreno.

But it was in contrasting professionals on a team of very bad professionals that I made my most egregious errors in judgment. If you hadn't watched Kelly Jennings, you wouldn't know why I was so high on Josh Wilson. If you hadn't watched Marcus Pollard, you wouldn't know why I was crazy about John Carlson. If you hadn't watched late-career Shaun Alexander, you wouldn't know why I thought Julius Jones was pretty good.

My contrast biased me one way: to overvalue talent on a bunch of very bad teams. I somehow neglected to contrast that talent with the talent of the greater NFL.

Endowment Effect

In the offseason following their respective hirings, Pete Carroll and John Schneider aggressively reshaped the roster, and in the process traded many of the Seahawks most promising players. This meant some of the players I had grown to like, like Darryl Tapp and Josh Wilson, were traded for what seemed like pennies on the dollar. But of course Tapp and Wilson were my players, on my team, and I overvalued them relative to the league, because a future draft pick has never converted a pick six or strip sack. I was losing something, and my gain was ambiguous.

In retrospect, Schneider and Carroll were rational, and I was clouded by bias. Or maybe Schneider and Carroll had their own biases, and it's only hindsight bias, specifically that the Seahawks have flourished since their arrival, that makes me assume they were right and rational all along. Whatever the truth, I know now to never deny a bias, however they may try us, or belie our confidences, because even the sounds of words warp. Even the sounds of words warp.

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5 Responses to “Bombast Revisited; A Partial List of My Cognitive Biases”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Another excellent piece.


  2. Borat says:

    Nice try. Brian has a compassionate side to him that is reflected in his pieces. He explains rather complex concepts with patience and care to readers who are not all up on game theory and probability modeling as he is. He obviously was raised by loving and brilliant parents.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The only cognitive bias I will admit to is the bias blind spot.

  4. James says:

    Well done.

  5. Steven says:

    There's a bias toward confirming views one already has, but there's also a bias toward recent events.

    For example, I think of the butt fumble (which really doesn't tell us much about Sanchez) as the funniest moment in NFL history. Statistically, the funniest moment in NFL history was probably not televised. Even of the sequences that were televised, I haven't seen most of them. And it's even pretty likely that I have seen a funnier play that, over the course of time, has faded from my memory. But it's really hard, while watching that play, to imagine that there was ever one that was funnier.

    In context, the fumble on the ensuing kick-off was pretty funny, too. But the butt-fumble didn't need any context to reach the pinnacle of low-brow humor.

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