Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Decision Analysis and the Patriots

Like Libby, I am a New Englander, and thus this has been a very good sports week for me. The Red Sox winning and advancing to the World Series with sufficient time off to get the pitching staff back to normal rest, and then the Patriots looking absolutely unreal. I want to talk about the Patriots as I get football way better than I get baseball, and I want to talk about decision paralysis.

Right now the Patriots offense is as prolific, if not more so, than the Greatest Show on Turf, or the best of the Manning-Harrison-Wayne offenses, and like the Colts, they have adapted a basic strategy of inflicting decision paralysis on the defense. Last year, the Patriots had a solid running game and a competent but not exceptional passing game. The passing game was good at or behind the line of scrimmage, comeptent within fifteen yards of the line of scrimmage, and atrocious past fifteen yards. This meant that the defensive decision tree was fairly simple as at least one safety could be safely committed to either the run defense, or the short/intermediate zones, or double coverage on a particular threat. Superior talent, coaching, and decision making by key actors, most especially Tom Brady, as well as an excellent defense allowed the Patriots to beat most teams, but the offense had trouble dictating the flow of their option space against flexible defenses [Minnesota is an exception].

This year, the Patriots are relying on decision paralysis through superior talent to create numerous pieces of option space. The outside receivers force the safeties back, which opens up the intermediate routes underneath and the cut back lanes for the running backs. Moving a safety up to support either the run or the short zones means leaving either Moss or Stallworth single covered and Brady has shown the ability to make that pass on a consistent basis.

Defenses are placed in another cycle of decision paralysis as the Patriots have done an excellent job of breaking their trends and showing confusing looks. Lining Moss up in the slot, sending Welker deep, running out of passing formations, passing in running situations and formations all make the decision loops for defensive players and coaches fill with friction. Furthermore the Patriots are utilizing their reputation for unpredictability to become predictable; for instance linebacker Mike Vrabel is often used as a short yardage/goalline tight end. He is routinely thrown to in the end zone and makes the catch. He has been put into games with other regular tight ends and has been drawing double coverage at times. In these situations, the good decision by the defense to play against an odd Patriots' tendency is being burned by a predictable counter-reaction of throwing to a full time tight end or receiver that is either uncovered or single covered. The Patriots are adapting and changing faster than their opponent's defenses can catch up.

And yeah, this entire discussion is aided by the fact that when the quarterback sees his #1 target streaking down the middle with very good, very tight double coverage and tosses it up there, it still constitutes a 'good decision' despite normally being a very low probability play.....

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