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Hi there! This is Part One of a Two-Part Confessions of an Economic Sportsfan feature: I Just Spent 8 Hours, 1/4 of a Bottle of Whiskey, and 5,000 Words On the Greatest Sports Plays of All Time. Around midnight of December 18th, I sat back with a fairly comprehensive Bleacher Report article (as they go), my laptop, a bottle of whiskey, a recliner chair, a big screen TV, and a YouTube to investigate what makes the “All Time Classic Plays” just so. Eight hours later, I had many thoughts, maybe even answers!1 Here’s Part One:

Turns out a couple of weeks ago my good friend Victor Gutwein, renowned corporate strategist at Claire’s, as well as a long-time avid reader and email subscriber of Crossroads, dropped me a line for a column suggestion:

Hey Colin- I love your blog and always learn something new. I was thinking about some of those great “Miracle Plays” you referenced in one of your recent articles, and it made me think of a few questions you might be able to answer.

I’ve seen some amazing football plays, but only some have been immortalized and given names (like “The River City Relay” “The Music City Miracle” or even some so definitive to just be called “The Catch”). Why do only some amazing plays becomes legends, whereas other (seemingly just as amazing) plays aren’t remembered? Is it the crowd, importance of the game, importance of the play, etc? Also- when I went back to watch some of these plays, I hardly recognized any of the receivers/runningbacks that made them happen- it was almost as if they were a “one-hit wonder” (e.g. the “helmet catch” with David Tyree). The guys that make these plays don’t seem to be all-star players (obviously they are good if they are in the NFL, but they aren’t rewriting record books). Does this “little guy” effect help create the legend and immortalize the play?

Even if I’m completely wrong about my assumptions, can you just talk about the impact of immortalized plays?

Thanks Colin- you are amazing!

-Victor

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you buddy, it’s just that even though I created it I have no idea how my own website works I’ve been busy. But here I sit, up late on this brisk Chicago night (soon to be Wednesday morning), no work tomorrow, and there’s nothing good on TV. Conditions are perfect to answer Victor’s question: why do some plays become legends? Building upon his query, I propose the following factors for consideration: atmosphere, game significance, originality, play significance, star factor, and Vegas panic. A quick rundown:

Atmosphere

Victor said the crowd; I’m thinking the complete environment of the game. Red Sox vs Yankees? Celtic vs Rangers? Ohio vs Michigan? The season opener or just a humdrum afternoon? A basketball court, or Madison Square Garden? Once a player on my high school soccer team shot and scored from midfield one touch after the kickoff with fewer than five minutes left to make it a 4-3 game; but maybe twenty or thirty people were in attendance.2 We lacked atmosphere, and goal scorer John Lee did not become a legend outside our own small circles. (Well, not yet.)

Game Significance

What’s at stake? A playoff spot? Staving off elimination? Winning the championship? Or is it just a regular game, or even a preseason game? This is NOT the same as atmosphere. A Red Sox-Yankee game can still have atmosphere, even if one or both teams have been eliminated from the playoffs.

Originality

It’s easier to type than “OH MY WORD WHAT JUST HAPPENED???”, but that’s what I’m going for. A catch? A jumping catch? A one-handed catch where the receiver impossibly got two feet in bounds? And sticks the ball against his helmet? The more original, the more likely a play finds its way into our memories, I suspect.

Play Significance

Does the play significantly affect the outcome of the game? Successful Hail Marys certainly do; long touchdown passes in the third quarter of a four touchdown game usually don’t.

Star Factor

Who pulls off this play, and who do they pull it off against? Gordan Banks, former goalkeeper of the England national soccer team, is commonly credited with the greatest save of all time. Banks was certainly good, but it’s the man whose header he stopped (this Brazilian named Pelé, maybe you’ve heard of him) that cemented his save in history.

Vegas Panic

Something along the lines of an upset factor, but more comprehensive. It’s not only an upset, it could just be something really unexpected and unusual. For example, it’s pretty common to see a losing NBA team hurl a desperation shot at the final buzzer, even if they’re down by more than three points. Sometimes those shots are made, and sometimes they swing the gambling outcome of the game if the losing team subsequently covers the spread. Of course, long-shot underdogs pulling through is probably how Vegas hysteria usually reaches us.

Which of these factors is the most important? To answer, I’m going to go through each of the 50 plays in the Bleacher Report article “The 50 Most Amazing Plays of All Time”.3 This was published on February 2, 2012, but that’s alright, it’s still a sample of 50 quite amazing plays, that must have been documented and remembered on some scale if some dude (Austin Schindel) at Bleacher Report can track them all down. I’ll rank each of the plays on each of the factors from 1-10, completely arbitrarily, without looking anything up for technical analysis (with the possible exception of getting some numbers for a Vegas Panic Index, but nah, I’ll just go with what feels right), and in no way following anything that resembles a scientific method of any sort. At the end I’ll tally up the scores and see which factors were most important. As an added bonus, I will be taking a sip4 of whiskey for every play that I have never seen before. Best get to it!5

#50: Nicks Catch Against WVU
  • Atmosphere: 1
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 8
  • Play Significance: 2
  • Star Factor: 3
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

That is a really, really ridiculous catch, AND it’s Hakeem Nicks, and we know he went on to become a big star in the actual NFL. But everything else looks like some UNC football game, because that’s all it is.

#49: Bluegrass Miracle
  • Atmosphere: 3
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 4
  • Play Significance: 10
  • Star Factor: 2
  • Vegas Panic: 2
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Well that was probably the most depressing play I’ve ever seen. Also I’m already getting confused by my factors. Is there “Atmosphere” if the play goes completely against the crowd? (Remembering the Stanford Band…) Yes, yes there is. And is there Vegas Panic if the play ends up (at least partially) restoring what everyone thought before hand was the extremely likely outcome? Yeah, a little bit, why not? Also I’m curious to see if Play Significance is dominant on this list; I don’t see how that can’t be a ten as it completely changed the outcome of the game. Also an originality of four because that Hail Mary was from the LSU 25! It’s pretty normal for it to bounce off like 20 dudes and the receiver to somehow walk scarcely touched into the end zone, but 75 yards? Damn.

#48: DeSean Jackson Punt Return
  • Atmosphere: 4
  • Game Significance: 2
  • Originality: 4
  • Play Significance: 10
  • Star Factor: 5
  • Vegas Panic: 4
  • I’ve seen this before: Yes.

The Miracle at the New Meadowlands! Note that DeSean actually fumbles the punt first, and then in classic DeSean fashion runs the width of the field at the one yard line and is almost tackled (well, sorta) before actually scoring. Pretty original for a punt returned for a touchdown.

#47: Derek Fisher 0.4 Shot
  • Atmosphere: 8
  • Game Significance: 6
  • Originality: 3
  • Play Significance: 10
  • Star Factor: 4
  • Vegas Panic: 4
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

The Western Conference Semi-Finals, on the road against the defending champion Spurs in a packed house… the turnaround jumper is fairly solid as well. Goodness.

#46: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
  • Atmosphere: 1
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 3
  • Play Significance: 1
  • Star Factor: 2
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Ehhh, Maradonna did it against more dudes on a better team, in the World Cup quarterfinals. Just sayin’.

#45: High School Hurdle
  • Atmosphere: 1
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 4
  • Play Significance: 1
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 0 (Forget the 1-10 scale!)
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Okay, the football hurdle has been around. Vernon Davis did it twice in one game a couple of weeks ago. But, Sam gets bonus points for going over a kid who was pretty much standing up at the time, way before he got close to tackling Sam.

#44: Malik’s Penalty Shot
  • Atmosphere: 6
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 3
  • Play Significance: 8
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

This guy is a straight B0$$! I think he’s what they used to keep the rink from melting, ’cause he’s so cool. Definitely one of the one’s where not being a star helped his claim to fame. Because, damn. Those moves from someone who hadn’t scored a goal all season. Also only an eight for play significance, as though it won the game, missing it didn’t mean they would have lost.

#43: Joe Washington (MUST WATCH!)
  • Atmosphere: 2
  • Game Significance: 2
  • Originality: 5
  • Play Significance: 1
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

WOW! I lost my mind like 12 seconds in, or whenever he decides the best way to proceed is BY GOING BACK UP THE SIDELINE, and not cutting across the field as I was expecting. Goodness gracious. The very best part: he actually lost three yards on this return. I just… love it so much. He gets it at the 48, and goes back to his own 18 (!!!), and makes it all the way back to his 45, without going more than a few yards laterally. I think this is one of the most amazing plays in the history of football. Wow.

#42: Bobby Ryan (The Bleacher Report link is dead, something lame about copyright infringement.)
  • Atmosphere: 4
  • Game Significance: 4
  • Originality: 4
  • Play Significance: 6
  • Star Factor: 2
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

When you do the same move on the same guy in two seconds, it’s pretty damn impressive, even if that guy lost his stick on the first move. (Hey, that’s his fault!) Also hockey playoffs! And a go-ahead goal in the third period! (Why don’t more people watch hockey? The puck isn’t that hard to follow these days. It’s really fun!)

#41: Kevin Mitchell Bare-Handed Catch
  • Atmosphere: 1
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 2
  • Play Significance: 2
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Okay that seriously wasn’t that impressive. Like, yes, it’s a bare handed catch in the outfield of a MLB game, but… come on. I have seen that before, and I’m no baseball announcer.

#40: Bird Scores on Own Miss
  • Atmosphere: 4
  • Game Significance: 4
  • Originality: 3
  • Play Significance: 2
  • Star Factor: 10
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Definitely a star factor play. I think if some Joe does this, even in the NBA, it’s forgotten, even by the Internet.

#39: Rene Higuita Saves Ball with His Feet (I replaced another dead link.)
  • Atmosphere: 2
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 10
  • Play Significance: 6
  • Star Factor: 4
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: Yes.

Ahh yes. Ahhhh yes. The Scorpion Kick… save! I think it’s a pretty significant play in the game because if he f&%$s that up, England gets a goal! Dude had some serious cojones.

#38: Amazing Japanese Baseball Player Catch (MUST WATCH!)
  • Atmosphere: 2
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 9
  • Play Significance: 6
  • Star Factor: 3
  • Vegas Panic: 0 (I’m still going with the 1-10 scale but Japanese baseball?)
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

WOW!!! Wow. I hold back from a perfect ten in originality because technically, we’ve seen guys climb the wall before, but… wow. Also it’s at this point that I’ve added a (MUST WATCH!) next to plays that I just completely lose my *#%@ over.

#37: Travis Pastrana Double Back Flip (MUST WATCH!)
  • Atmosphere: 10
  • Game Significance: 7
  • Originality: 9
  • Play Significance: 10
  • Star Factor: 10
  • Vegas Panic: 0 (Yeah, yeah…)
  • I’ve seen this before: Yes.

Mini-confession: I have always been high on the X Games since being bored and having cable TV (well, Dish Network) as a kid. That is truly amazing, Travis Pastrana was an enormous icon in the sport even before that (if you didn’t know), and f&$% you if you don’t think that atmosphere is a 10. “I’m just having fun.” AAUUGGHH!

#36: Roger Federer Through the Legs (MUST WATCH!)
  • Atmosphere: 9
  • Game Significance: 9
  • Originality: 9
  • Play Significance: 9
  • Star Factor: 10
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Okay, relax because I only designated eight (MUST WATCH!)s in the whole bunch, but AAAAUUUUGGGHHHH!!! IN THE US OPEN SEMIFINALS? Against a fierce rival and one of the best players in the world? Trying to put him away in the third set? That was profound. Look at Djokovic’s face! Absurd.

#35: Oklahoma State Interception
  • Atmosphere: 7
  • Game Significance: 8
  • Originality: 7
  • Play Significance: 6
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 2
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Great rivalry, great teams. Just a great play. To quote John Madden:

When you have great players, playing great, well that’s great football.

#34: Brad Johnson TD Pass to Himself
  • Atmosphere: 1
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 4
  • Play Significance: 4
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Decidedly meh. What’s next?

#33: Bears Decoy
  • Atmosphere: 6
  • Game Significance: 4
  • Originality: 10
  • Play Significance: 6
  • Star Factor: 7
  • Vegas Panic: 3
  • I’ve seen this before: No. (Incredibly.)

I’m just angry. This is an incredible, brilliant play, fabulously executed by Hester and Knox, and terribly executed by the scumbag who decided to hold. HOW DO YOU HOLD ON THIS PLAY? Devastating. The Eagles ran a somewhat similar play on a kickoff return last year, with an across the field pass, only ruined it as the pass went forward by maybe a half yard. But this, the Hester decoy, taking advantage of that unique skill set he brings and completely fooling the other team, all ruined… I really am devastated. A sure-fire (MUST WATCH!) but for the stupid holding penalty… grrr.

UPDATE: Upon seeing this, I emailed the link to a Bears fan friend of mine. All I said in the subject was “Surely you know this happened???!?!?!!”. His response? “I knew what this was going to be before I even clicked.” I am so proud of my friends.

#32: Michael Vick Lights It Up
  • Atmosphere: 6
  • Game Significance: 2
  • Originality: 3
  • Play Significance: 7
  • Star Factor: 7
  • Vegas Panic: 5
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Some pretty serious bonus points for getting two defenders to run into each other… head first.

#31: Stefan Misses Empty Net
  • Atmosphere: 3
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 5
  • Play Significance: 8
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 2
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Oh my. HOW DO MORE PEOPLE NOT LIKE HOCKEY??? I couldn’t help but look this one up, and yeah, the Stars came back to win the game in a shootout. Please, anybody, explain to me momentum in sports again?

#30: Orton Throws Game-Winning TD
  • Atmosphere: 2
  • Game Significance: 2
  • Originality: 2
  • Play Significance: 9
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 5
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Ehh, exciting, but… ehh.

#29: Devin Harris Buzzer Beater
  • Atmosphere: 2
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 4
  • Play Significance: 10
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 4
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

It’s the double clutch that does it. A desperation heave, fine… but it’s rejected, so he throws up another one on the fly? Preposterous.

#28: Roberto Carlos Free Kick
  • Atmosphere: 2
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 3
  • Play Significance: 5
  • Star Factor: 5
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: Yes. (So many times.)

First off, even as far as weird individually produced YouTube sports clip videos go, that was pretty weird/hilarious. Second off, it’s the perfect free kick. I guess that should probably be another category, something to do with execution/preparation of the play as opposed to just dumb luck. Oh well.

#27: Saints Lateral
  • Atmosphere: 3
  • Game Significance: 2
  • Originality: 3
  • Play Significance: 8
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 4
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Wow, now I’m just really, really sad. Oh jeez.

#26: Chris Moore
  • Atmosphere: 1
  • Game Significance: 1
  • Originality: 5
  • Play Significance: 1
  • Star Factor: 1
  • Vegas Panic: 1
  • I’ve seen this before: No.

Gotta’ hand it to the man, pulling off the double between-the-legs crossover, a slick move to get you into the paint, previously unappreciated on the football field.

Well that’s it for Part One! Check back tomorrow to see how the rest of my night (/morning) went as I finished up the plays and tallied the results.


  1. And of course a great deal of questions as well. Why are people so awesome and put together all these YouTube videos? How could Bleacher Report do this to me? Is it light outside? 
  2. My Midland Oaks actually ended up tying those Laguna Blanca scumbags 4-4 that day, way back in my senior year of high school, I believe in late 2008 but possibly early 2009. Yes, I’m still angry we let them back in the game. (Twice.) 
  3. Note: The cover picture for this article is of Tiger Woods. I’m not usually inclined to rank a golf shot high on any of the factors I’ve identified (unless the shot in question is from Happy Gilmore), but I’ll try to keep an open mind. If something from NASCAR gets in there, well… we’ll see. (Curling and other ridiculous Olympic sports? Definitely okay with that.) 
  4. A sip shall constitute between roughly one-tenth and one-half of a shot, depending upon how many of these plays it turns out I actually haven’t seen, how bad@$$ a play makes me feel just watching it for the first time, and my general mood. 
  5. Disclaimer: I didn’t realize there wouldn’t be a single female sporting occurrence on the list until after I was done. I think that’s pretty dumb. Surely the US Women’s National Soccer Team alone is good for a couple, plus Olympic sports (Dara Torres much?), college (basketball in particular), great stuff in women’s hockey, actual women’s professional leagues like the former WUSA and the current WNBA… I dunno why it’s a men only list, but it’s what I worked with initially. Next time I’ll do better. 
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It’s been a couple of weeks since I checked my notes on silly things announcers say during games, and I thought I’d get back to it. Let’s go!

At home in Week 13, the Texans force a Patriots’ punt and get the ball back just before halftime.

CBS play-by-play veteran Greg Gumbel:

And with 28 seconds on the clock, the Texans will have the ball at their own 20 yard line, and unless something really, really strange happens they’re going to go the locker room with the lead.

I guess this is the equivalent of whatever an honorable mention would be in this series. John Madden said things like this all the time. When you’re public speaking for three hours, you’ll probably end up saying something “really, really” obvious somewhere in there. I’m mostly fine with announcers saying a few things here and there just to fill in the broadcast, but I still thought this was funny.

At home in Week 13, the Panthers gain two yards on 3rd&G from the Bucs’ three yard line with 30 seconds left in the second quarter.

Fox’s play-by-play man Chris Myers:

Now let’s see if he’s going to go for it or not, remember he said he plays percentages, he’s going to let the clock run, of course you can always go for it, if you miss it you pin Tampa Bay back there with your time outs.

Color commentator Tim Ryan, former third round pick of the Chicago Bears in the 1990 NFL Draft:

I’m never chasing points early in games, Riverboat Ron or not, check the analytics, take the points.

Ugh. Tim, I’m taking your advice, and actually checking the analytics. (Although it’s really obvious going for it is the better strategy.) HEY, the analytics say that going for it provides the Panthers a 79% chance of winning and kicking the field goal results in a 74% chance of winning. Tim, if I agreed to give you $3 every day (100% of days) over four weeks, or if I agreed to give you $7 on 19 days within four weeks (68% of days), which would you prefer? The 100% chance of $3 ($3 on average each day, $84 total), or the 68% chance of $7 ($4.76 on average each day, $133 total)? Yes Tim, as the NFL average of converting 4th&1 is 68%1, the deal I’m offering is pretty much analogous to this situation. This is what checking the analytics means, Tim. What do you think?

Tim Ryan:

I think two missed opportunities to give Cam Newton the ball there on second and third down, and it looks like they’re going to be out there and they’re gonna go for it here on fourth down. I would just take the points and go up by a touchdown.

Chris Myers:

Ron Rivera chooses otherwise, if you were going to do that, maybe leave a little more time in case you stop ’em, but let’s see.

Before the play, the Bucs call timeout. Chris Myers:

So how about this call?

Tim Ryan:

I don’t ever want to chase points, especially in the first half of games, you’ve got an opportunity to kick a field goal, Ron knows way more about it than I do, he’s got obviously great trust in his football team, I would not give an opportunity for Tampa to change the momentum, if they can get a stop here.

The Panthers go for it, and Cam Newton dives over the line for a touchdown.

Eventually Ryan says:

I guess if I had that guy and I was Ron Rivera I’d be going for it too. … I don’t care what your cards say, you’re always holding a royal flush when Cam’s out there.

Way to go Tim! Way to go. Next time, maybe have an intern check the analytics for you, and you won’t have to use poker vernacular to distract your audience that you just used the phrase “chasing points” several times like it actually means something, but really you don’t know what you’re talking about.

At home against the Bears in Week 13, the Vikings get a first down at the Bears 21 with 9:03 left in overtime.

Thom Brennaman:

Well they’re going to continue to run plays here, for the time being anyway, after the penalty the ball all the way down to the 21. …

On first down, Peterson loses three yards, setting up 2nd&13 from the Bear 24.

Thom Brennaman:

Right now it would be a 43 yard field goal attempt, maybe 42 yards, and we mentioned earlier Walsh, has been lights out in his career, short albeit it. But a Pro Bowler as a rookie a season ago, and only two misses all of this year.

Brian Billick:

Can Blair Walsh make it from here? Then center it up and kick the ball. There are too many things that can go wrong.

The “Can Blair Walsh make it from here?” question is, well, disturbing coming from a former Super Bowl winning head coach, who presumably took the same logic in his own decisions. As we saw in Week 14, Matt Prater can hit a 64 yard field goal in Denver. Should the Broncos kick every time they get to their opponents’ 47 yard line? Probably not, right? You’ll notice the Broncos only kicked that field goal because there was no time left in the first half. If there was, they would have kept running plays to get closer. And that’s the thing about field goals: closer is always better. Always. Brian Burke’s research suggests that every yard closer increases field goal percentage by 1.6% (between the 10 and 35 yard lines). But anyway, Peterson gained three yards, setting up 3rd&10 from the 21. The Vikings put out their field goal unit.

Brian Billick:

And this is a good call, why do it on fourth down, do it on third down, than god forbid if there’s a bad snap, something happens, then you can fall on the ball and re- and take another kick, so this is a good move by Minnesota, by doing this on third down.

How likely is a bad snap, or a “something happens”, that lets the Vikings get another shot? (Note: a missed field goal ends the offense’s position, even if it’s not on fourth down.) Burke guesses it’s around 0.5%, or one in every two hundred. That seems fair given that of the last 500 extra point attempts, where the process for snapping and holding is exactly the same, only seven have been missed. If all seven are the result of bad snaps or holds (which they probably aren’t), that’s a bad snap/hold rate of 1.4%. But even if you really go crazy and think it’s 2%, the Vikings can increase their chances of winning by 3.2% just by gaining two yards! Adrian Peterson averaged 6 yards per carry in that game, and is around five yards per carry in his career.

As it turned out, Walsh hit the field goal, but a 15 yard penalty on the Vikings set up 3rd&25 from the Bear 36. The Vikings put their offense back out on the field.

Brian Billick:

They feel like they need to grind out a couple more yards, rather than- rather than give Blair Walsh the shot from here.

Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier decided to make the field goal easier here… only for Peterson to actually lose three yards, and see Walsh miss the ensuing 57 yarder. The Bears got the ball and got to a 2nd&7 from the Vikings 29, and sent their field goal unit out to attempt a 47 yard field goal.

Brian Billick:

You know same mentality, why risk the turnover, you’ve got a great deal of faith in your field goal kicker. You know I had a great one in Baltimore Thom in Matt Stover, and by quarter, Matt would tell me exactly where I needed to be in order to attempt these field goals. … There’s no question it’s within his range. Once you cross that 30 as a I said, you set that mark, once you get past it then that’s when you make your decision as a coach. … This is clearly his range.

Again, being incredibly generous to this thinking, we’re looking at a 2% chance of bumbling the snap/hold process, and a 1.6% improvement of making the kick for every yard the Bears continue to advance down the field. A kicker’s “range” is not static: every bit closer the odds go up, every bit farther away the odds go down. Plus, it was only second down! Even if you want to go on third down in the very unlikely event your field goal unit botches it, at least use second down! Yeah, the Bears could turn the ball over, but have the odds of that changed in the last couple plays? If you’re worried about a turnover why not just punt as soon as you get the ball? Anyway, Gould missed wide right; the Vikings eventually won on the next possession.

In Tennessee down 10-7, the Cardinals kick a field goal on 4th&2 from the Titan 7 with 7:25 left in the second quarter.

FOX color commentator Charles Davis:

I think it’s the right call this early in the game, Arizona plenty more opportunities on offense, and moving and clicking pretty well now, you don’t turn down points here, not anywhere close to a desperation move. Munchak, we saw him, head coach of the Titans, happy with his defense coming up with that third down stop and forcing a field goal attempt.

Blegh. Forget the hyperbole of momentum, turning down points, etc. Going for it gave the Cardinals a 50% chance of winning; kicking the field goal, 48%. Oh yeah, and also the Cardinals ended up with a big lead before a Titans comeback led to an eventual Cardinals’ win in overtime. Arizona could have avoided that by actually putting them away and taking the most points, instead of just taking (some of) the points.

A.J. Hawk breaks up a Tony Romo pass on 1st&10 from the Cowboy 23 with 13:23 to go in the second quarter.

Fox color guy Troy Aikman:

Hawk makes a nice play on that ball, and, and A.J. Hawk, I think he’s one of the more under appreciated guys around the league, and, I think a lot of expectations when he came into the league from Ohio State because where he was drafted, but you know he’s probably been their most consistent player defensively, he shows up every week, he used to be a first and second down guy and now he even stays in nickel situations.

Also be wary when “experts”, including former players like Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, make praising statements for being underrated and showing up. Pro Football Focus has A.J. Hawk as the sixth worst inside linebacker on the season. In my mid-season evaluation of inside linebacker contracts, I found his contract quality to be the third worst in the league. He’s been overrated, not underrated, Troy.

While no means a comprehensive list, that’s sans-49ers announcer material I had for the last three weeks. I’ll probably next return to announcers when their playoff assignments are locked down. In fact, after New Year’s Eve I may even pursue a fan suggestion for “The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Sports Television: NFL Announcers”. Stay tuned.


  1. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David probably make the Bucs an above-average short-yardage defense, but Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams probably make the Panthers an above-average short-yardage offense, so 68% is probably pretty close to the Panthers true 4th&1 success rate against the Bucs. 

I love sports, and of course I love sports announcing. Though a San Francisco Giants fan1, I’ll definitely watch any west coast Dodger game just to enjoy the magnificence that is Vin Scully.2 And where would I be in the Olympics without Bob Costas guiding me along in the studio? I’ve never had quite as much love for any football game commentators, with the possible exception of Pat Summerall and John Madden. Generally, I feel they do a good job– it actually isn’t easy to sit down for three hours and talk during a football game while being appealing to millions of viewers– but they say many silly things. Or things that are just wrong. I find this most aggravating when it’s the “expert” color commentator, guaranteed to be a former player or coach, whom I feel people usually, often wrongly, trust. While they may offer some fascinating insights, they may also offer some terrible ones. It is rare that I watch a game and at no point think to myself “That’s wrong,” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” Yesterday as usual I started watching football at noon, and unusually finished at 11:30 pm thanks to an overtime thriller in Foxborough. While not a comprehensive list, I tried to make a note when a commentator said something silly.3 Here we go.

With the Ravens trailing the Jets 3-0 and 4:10 remaining in the first quarter, Ray Rice gained two yards on a 2nd&1 from the Jet 28.

CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel remarked:

Ray has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.

And color commentator Dan Dierdorf, 13 year NFL veteran, five-time First-team All-Pro selection, replied in his infinite wisdom:

Well he did, an- and because the criticism was all on him, when in reality I saw a whole bunch of tape on these guys where there were no holes whatsoever. Ray Rice was being met at the line of scrimmage.

At the moment Ray Rice has the worst Pro Football Focus grade4 among all running backs in the NFL, and it’s not close. With a -0.2 in the passing game, a -11.6 in the run game, a -3.1 as a blocker, and a -0.5 in penalties, he totals a -15.4. The next worst running back, C.J. Spiller, checks in with a -11.2, and third worst, Darren McFadden, registers a -7.9. PFF’s “Elusive Rating” is a statistic designed to gauge how well a running back evades tacklers, controlling for the quality of his blocking. Ray Rice is dead last among the 50 running backs with enough snaps to qualify with a 7.0; tops is Marshawn Lynch with a 72.7. (The rating roughly scales from 1-100.) So I know Dan Dierdof “saw a whole bunch of tape” and I believe him. But a whole bunch of guys at PFF saw all of the tape, and firmly conclude that Ray Rice has played abysmally this season. So if you caught a few Ravens’ games and heard Dierdof’s remarks and thought “Oh, it isn’t on Ray Rice, it’s the people around him,” rest assured: it is on Ray Rice. He has truly earned the second worst running back contract in football. Which is to say, he has not earned his contract at all.

With the Steelers leading the Browns 10-3 on a 2nd&10 from the Brown 14 with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s pass for Antonio Brown in the end zone was broken up by Joe Haden.

Solomon Wilcots, six year NFL veteran and color commentator of CBS, broke down what happened:

This is a great play by Joe Haden. Watch him knife in underneath. He understands that down around the goal line, look at that play! You have to get between the quarterback and the receiver. He allowed himself to slip underneath, he had great position.

It’s great, except CBS is showing the replay as Wilcots is saying this, the replay in which Haden very clearly grabs Brown’s jersey with his left hand and holds on for a good moment. It wasn’t blatant pass interference, but it was pass interference. It’s one thing for the officials to miss it live; it’s another for Haden to miss it during the slow motion replay, as he remarks what a terrific play it was by Haden. And even though this is the type of penalty that may not be called most of the time, Wilcots doesn’t acknowledge that Haden grabbed Brown at all. Fans at home, Joe Haden is a very good corner in the National Football League, but that doesn’t always mean “slipping underneath”. Sometimes it may mean “gets overly physical without getting whistled”.

Down 10-3 at home after an incomplete Case Keenum pass on 3rd&goal from the Jaguar two yard line with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Texans took their offense off the field to kick a field goal.

Said CBS color commentator Steve Tasker, 13 year veteran, seven-time All-Pro:

And that’s going to force the field goal, the fans aren’t happy about it but it’s the right move.

Of course if you’ve ever heard of Brian Burke, or know the difference between actual good strategy in the NFL and the still-prevailing conventional wisdom, you know that’s the wrong call. A quick rundown of the numbers: on average going for it in that situation produces a win probability of 0.38; kicking a field goal produces a win probability of 0.31.  From up in the press box Kubiak’s decision cost his team a 7% chance of winning the game.5 For going for it to be worthwhile in this situation, the Texans need to convert only 26% of the time. It’s two yards, and lest we forget, THEY’RE PLAYING THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS! For Tasker to dismiss this as “the right move” is just… how can he… it’s so obviously… RAGE!!! Furious George, L.O.L. I didn’t watch the end of the game, which the Texans went on to lose 13-6, but I bet at no point during the Texans’ final drive6 did Tasker point out “HEY, the would only need a field goal right now if they had gone for it on fourth down earlier and scored a touchdown, as was quite likely given that they only had two yards to go. And as it is, they STILL need to score a touchdown and are in a situation where they have to go for it on fourth down anyway, even if it’s way more than two yards to go. Jeez, I guess I was just saying what I always say and talking out of my @#$ earlier, huh Bill?” Of course if he did point that out, then, well, tip of the hat to him. But I kinda doubt it.

On a 1st&10 with 8:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Packers, down 20-7 to the Vikings, replaced Scott Tolzien with Matt Flynn, who promptly completed his first pass for nine yards.

Fox play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt stated:

A completion. And it’s got this crowd back in the game.

Color commentator and 15 year NFL veteran, four-time All-Pro safety John Lynch chimed in:

He goes to Matt Flynn and they get a little momentum right away.

Whether or not you “believe” in momentum in sports or not, you probably know there is no factual evidence for it if you feel strongly about it one way or the other. Bill Barnwell, of the great Grantland.com, has sort of made “Nomentum” a thing this year, bringing facts a bit further into the mainstream. I’ll only say this: what do you mean when you refer to “momentum”, exactly? Lynch said they got “a little momentum right away.” Scott Tolzien, just benched, had pulled off two nifty moves on a six yard touchdown run earlier in the game. Did that play accrue momentum? And if so, it must have disappeared, since Tolzien was benched? So was the momentum from this pass from Flynn more noteworthy than any momentum Tolzien had gained, an indication that the Packers’ fortunes would be reversed and cause for the fans to rejoice? I, uhh, kinda doubt it. On the next play James Starks ran for 34 yards, setting up 1st&10 from the Viking 37. The momentum must really be going now, right!?! Then Starks ran for two yards, Flynn threw an incomplete pass, and Flynn threw a pass for a loss of five yards, leaving the Packers with 4th&13 from the Vikings 40. They punted. Tragically neither Burkhardt nor Lynch explained where that momentum had gone, and what impact, if any, it had on the game.

Up 24-3 facing 3rd&1 from the Colt 45 with 4:13 remaining in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals’ Andre Ellington was stuffed for a loss of two.

After the play, CBS color commentator Dan Fouts, 15 year NFL veteran and two-time First-team All-Pro, praised the Colts for the stop, saying:

It looked like the Colts- er, the Cardinals had momentum.

What a curious statement! It LOOKED like the Cardinals had the momentum. But in fact, the Colts now have the momentum? The Cardinals had the momentum because they were up by three touchdowns at home and driving in their opponent’s territory? But then, in one fell swoop, the Colts got a stop and now they have the momentum? Or some momentum? The Cardinals have less momentum now? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, DAN??? You know, I think I know. I was never the quarterback for any football team, let alone the San Diego Chargers, and I’m not in the NFL Hall of Fame, but hear me out: “momentum” is when a team improves their situation, relative to the previous situation. And it gets thrown around for a variety of situation types: momentum accrued from a winning streak (sometimes dating back to last season!), unanswered points, a string of good plays, or just one good play, or penalty, whatever. So far as I’m aware, there is A LOT of anecdotal, personal claims that such “momentum” helps a team or player perform, but actually zero (scientific) evidence that it does. Certainly, that’s the case in other sports7, and given the fickle nature of momentum’s tangible effects on performance, I sure don’t see a case otherwise.

On 4th&4 down 27-3 with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Andrew Luck’s pass from the Cardinal 36 was batted into the air and nearly intercepted on the Cardinal 20 before hitting the turf.

Fouts pointed out:

Well they’re better off not catching that ball.

And good for him, it’s a good point and he is totally right. On 4th down, unless there’s a good run back opportunity, the defense improves field position by batting the ball down instead of catching it. And then play-by-play man Ian Eagle chimed in:

It doesn’t matter other than the yardage. So you can pad your stats as a defensive player, but you actually are going to benefit if it’s incomplete.

Eagle sort hits on the right point (after Fouts brought it up), but uhhh… “It doesn’t matter other than the yardage”? Yeah, that’s what the teams are doing in football, trying to gain yards and get to the end zone. The yardage matters! According to Advanced NFL Stats‘ Win Probability Calculator, in this situation the yardage matters to the tune of a single percent chance of winning. Starting on their 36, the Cardinals had a win probability of 95%; starting on their 20, it would have been 94%. That’s not a lot, but disregarding yards in a football game, especially 16 of them (nearly a fifth of the field), is pretty silly.

With 4:52 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday Night Football, down 31-24, Wes Welker dropped a pass over the middle on a 1st&10 from the Patriot 36.

Cris Collinsworth, eight year NFL veteran and three-time Second-team All-Pro selection, wondered of Welker’s drop:

How many times do you see that?

Fortunately, NBC play-by-play caller Al Michaels jumped right in:

Once too many for some New England fans.

Fans who don’t obsess over the numbers but just enjoy watching football (God bless ’em) may well think Wes Welker has terrific hands, because nearly without fail, every time he drops a pass, whoever is announcing the game remarks “Oh, a rare drop from Wes Welker!” Except Welker’s drops are hardly rare, so over the course of a season it is a pretty regular occurrence to hear a rare Wes Welker drop proclaimed on television. Going as far back as PFF data goes, through the 2008 season, Welker’s drop rate is the following (league-wide rank among players with 25% of their team’s targets or more in parentheses):

  • 2008: 6.03% (19th of 81)
  • 2009: 4.65% (24th of 101)
  • 2010: 13.13% (70th of 89)
  • 2011: 9.63% (48th of 95)
  • 2012: 11.28% (58th of 82)
  • 2013: 9.72% (54th of 97)

Welker certainly doesn’t have the worst hands in the NFL, but he’s hardly elite. Larry Fitzgerald, for example, finished 13th or higher all of those seasons except 2012, when he finished 24th. To answer Collinsworth’s question, counting 2013, the last four seasons Welker has dropped 9% or more of his catchable passes. Counting last night, so far in 2013 he’s dropped seven passes; only seven players have dropped more than him this season. Kudos to Michaels for hinting to Collinsworth that, in fact, a Wes Welker drop is not all that unusual.

Lastly, I just thought I’d remind everyone who the Top 10 quarterbacks have been in fantasy football this week, pending MNF (standard points in parentheses):

  • 1. Philip Rivers (27.78)
  • 2. Tom Brady (24.76)
  • 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick (24.4)
  • 4. Alex Smith (21.46)
  • 5. Carson Palmer (20.56)
  • 6. Cam Newton (20.06)
  • 7. Drew Brees (18.52)
  • 8. Josh McCown (18.48)
  • 9. Ryan Tannehill (18)
  • 10. Matthew Stafford (16.48)

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, and Josh McCown all cracked the Top 10. What is the world coming to? Although to be fair, yesterday at mid-afternoon Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder, Kellen Clemens, and bad quarterback superstar Brandon Weeden were also in the running. Mike Glennon actually scored more points (16.18) than Peyton Manning (13). I give up. Go 49ers!


  1. And also a Seattle Mariners fan. That Pacific Northwest life, being close to the homeland in Alaska. Incidentally my mother’s two favorite baseball teams are the Washington Nationals, where she grew up, and the Mariners, closest to where she lives now. They are the only two active Major League Baseball franchises that do not have a single appearance in the World Series. (Yes, even before when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos.) It’s a hard life. 
  2. Also, Vin Scully had the call for “The Catch”, so it’s even more okay. 
  3. How did I catch calls from so many different games? DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. God bless DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. 
  4. Among running backs who’ve played 25% or more of their team’s snaps. PFF has multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game. Click here to learn more about PFF’s grading system. 
  5. Poor Kubiak. His recent health scare is keeping him from the sidelines, and after losing to the Jaguars, at home, you’ve got to wonder if he’ll be coaching the Texans next season, or even at the end of this one. I only take issue with his chosen strategy in this case; I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being and I wish him and his family the best. 
  6. Which ended on a Case Keenum interception from the Jaguar 41. If the Texans had only needed a field goal to tie then, they might have squeaked it out. 
  7. See all scientific findings regarding “the hot hand”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot-hand_fallacy 
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