Analytics vs. Common Sense: For Coaches Making the BIG DECISIONS

Coach Tony DeMeo Advice for the Coaches

A treat we have today is an article written by legendary coach Tony DeMeo for other coaches, yet it is useful for us to regard when we judge coaching decisions as Oregon fans. Coaching is harder than it looks, and Coach DeMeo covers one of the new, higher profile coaching tools in the game of football today. Charles Fischer

The big buzz word in sports today is “Analytics,” the percentage and probabilities pertaining to game management, as these days nearly every call a coach makes is backed up by analytics. In other words, going for a 4th & 1 is justified as long as the analytics say that is a good call. But, the analytics don’t tell the whole story (especially in football).

Good old common sense deserves a place in play calling as well as analytics, and here are a couple of examples of analytics backfiring.

Early in the season LSU was playing at Texas in a close game. The Longhorns drove deep into LSU territory and was inside the Tiger five yard line when UT’s coach, Tom Herman decided to go for it on 4th down, even though they hadn’t gained a foot on the prior three downs. LSU rose up and stuffed the Horns, and thus Texas got nothing from the long drive.

Texas got stopped … again!

Later in the game, the exact same scenario came up and Coach Herman did precisely the same thing with a nada result again. No points for UT, and the final score was 45-38; if Texas had kicked two field goals in those failed drives, then the Longhorns would only have needed a field goal at the end of the game to win, instead of a touchdown to tie.

Could misguided analytics have helped the Tigers to later play and win the National Championship?

Another example comes when Navy was playing Memphis and leading 20-14 in the 3rd quarter with the ball on their own 29 yard line, and it was once again 4th & 1. Navy usually loves to go for it on 4th down, but Memphis was undefeated at the time and their defense was playing Navy tough, especially in short yardage situations. Navy goes for it and gets stuffed, giving Memphis the ball on the Navy 29 yard line! Memphis capitalizes on the short field and takes the lead at 21-20, ultimately resulting in a 32-23 Memphis win.

Now, I’m not second guessing Coach Herman or Navy’s Coach Ken Niumatalolo, as there are countless other decisions that can go wrong, what I am criticizing is the criteria for the decisions.

How about Oregon’s 4th & 1 versus Auburn?

Football is a game of people and match-ups, not percentages and averages. Texas may make 4th & Goal 90% of the time against Texas Tech, Rice and North Texas but not versus LSU! Analytics do not know the team you’re playing against, but you do. On 4th & 1, Coach Ken may have made it 92% of the time against Holy Cross, but not versus Memphis who had been playing them tough all day. It’s about people and match-ups.

Another major point is how analytics do not take into account the weather; would you make the same decision in a snow flurry in the Palouse, as you would on a perfect day at Autzen?

Usually your gut tells you if you’re moving the ball well enough to go for it, or if you are struggling. For example, Navy was struggling on offense against Memphis, and even if the Midshipmen got the first down, they were still back on their own 29 yard line. The more experience a coach has, the more likely he will sense when it is best to punt. (Navy only scored 3 more points the rest of the game!)

While this “Scoop and Score” by Brady Breeze will always be a fan favorite, look at the “Meaningful Stats” below to see the impact upon winning the Rose Bowl.

The Four Meaningful Stats:

Score at least 25 points: you win 88% of your games.
Hold your opponent to less than 16 points: you win 92% of your games.
Score a non-offensive TD: you win 90% of your games.
Achieve a +2 turnover margin: you win 98% of your games.

These Four Meaningful Stats are the most significant numbers I used with my staff to set team goals and construct game plans, as they do matter, but so does common sense on game-day! Be careful not to base all your decisions on today’s trendy analytics, as they can backfire when other components of football emerge.

Wisely use them as another tool to balance the elements of your decision-making on the field; they can help, but don’t over-rely upon them so you can win more games!

Coach Tony DeMeo
Charleston, West Virginia
Top Photo by Tom Corno


Chris Brouilette, the Volunteer editor for this article, is a current student at the University of Oregon from Sterling, Illinois.

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