A Football Story: The Brittle Logic of Kicking Away A Scoring Opportunity

Football coaches are notoriously conservative play callers, especially at the professional level. While this behavior can produce sub-optimal game strategies, the precautions are understandable given the precarious nature of the job. A coach’s audience is prone to judge decisions by outcomes instead of the situation and information available at the time of the decision. Coaches can receive too much blame for executional mistakes and the ravages of randomness in cause and effect analysis. Conservative play calling buffers these crosswinds because it conforms to conventional thinking; it is more resilient because it references an orthodox body of work that has withstood prior scrutiny. So there is almost nothing like a sportscaster or analyst to remind me of the unfair punishment coaches can receive from actually taking a chance or stepping outside the bounds of standard expectations.

Such an occasion happened during an NFL game between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football on November 6, 2017 at Lambeau Field. I was listening to the game on the radio during an extremely long drive through heavy traffic. I had no visuals to distract me from the game announcers. They were my entire window onto the game. I had little else to do but reflect critically on the scrutiny the announcers applied to the game. It is possible this audio focus increased my sensitivity.

Sportscaster Boomer Esiason, former quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, caught my attention with a scathing reaction to the decision of Lions coach Jim Caldwell to kick a long-distance 55-yard field goal. Esiason sounded scandalized as he explained why Caldwell should have instead punted the ball back to the Packers. This strategy is conservative because it trades in the immediate opportunity to score for the potential of receiving a better opportunity to score later. Esiason argued that Caldwell’s strategy should focus on pressuring the young Packers quarterback Brett Hundley. A punt would pin the Green Bay offense deep in its own territory. With his back against the wall (near his own endzone), Hundley would presumably execute even more poorly. This strategy includes some key assumptions delivered with no supporting data or references:

  • The punter successfully kicks the ball deep, AND the Packers fail to return the ball down the field.
  • A bad quarterback’s performance significantly varies by field position.

A conservative coach would indeed assume the odds of a great punt and poor return are better than the odds of a long field goal. Yet, the Lions possessed the football at the Packers’ 37-yard line. Such a close-range punt can easily result in a touchback because the room for error is so much smaller. A touchback occurs when the ball goes into the opposing team’s endzone, and it gives the opposing team the ball on its 20-yard line. With the Lions at the Green Bay 37-yard line, a touchback would result in a net 17-yard punt. Esiason ignored these risks in his analysis and said nothing about the skill of the Lions punt team.

Given the poor quarterback play, the Packers coach was very unlikely to allow Hundley to make any risky throws. Notably, Hundley never turned the ball over the entire game. The Packers suffered three sacks but only lost 12 total yards as a result. Packers coach Mike McCarthy seemed prepared to call a game crafted for his inexperienced quarterback. A bad player will force any coach to get and stay conservative. In other words, the Packers coach would likely neutralize pressure by very conservative play calling. Esiason assumed that the Packers coach would be unable to neutralize this pressure.

Overall, Esiason’s strategy has multiple points of failure. It feels and looks brittle compared to the simplicity of attempting a long field goal. I argue that relying on your team’s resilience in the case of a failed kick is the better risk/reward course of action, especially against a much weaker opponent.

Even without these assumptions, Esiason’s analysis fails under the weight of a critical logical flaw. If a legendary high-performer like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady replaced Hundley, Esiason’s strategy implies that the coach should kick the long field goal. However, the skill of the quarterback has NO impact on the odds of making the field goal. So if a coach fears a field goal miss, why would that coach risk giving a highly skilled quarterback a short field (meaning a shorter distance to make a touchdown)? I claim that Esiason should REVERSE his logic. If the opposing offense is weak, then a coach should take MORE risks: the downside costs should be lower. The potential penalty for giving a short field to a bad quarterback is much lower than giving a short field to a good quarterback. If Esiason then objected to the conditional on the skill of the quarterback, then his strategy effectively reduces to a ban on all long field goal kicks unless perhaps to win a game in the final minutes or seconds…an extremely conservative strategy!

Esiason’s error is more glaring considering the record of Matt Prater, the kicker for the Lions. Over his career, Prater has a 79% success rate with field goals of 50+ yards (the other announcer provided this statistic – perhaps in the hopes of assuaging Esiason?). That is, Prater is a good and strong kicker. He is a kicker a coach can trust with riskier kicks. Esiason complained that the weather was cold and not conducive to making long field goals, so perhaps the odds under those circumstances were somewhat lower. I doubt significantly lower given Prater’s overall record. (Note that the Lions are an indoor team, so Prater plays at least half of his games in the relative comfort of room temperature).

So how did things turn out? Prater missed the field goal.

Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater misses a 55-yard field goal against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football (November 6, 2017).
Detroit Lions kicker Matt Prater misses a 55-yard field goal against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football (November 6, 2017).

Source: NFL

Esiason essentially lost it after the miss. Without acknowledging that Prater missed the field goal by a small margin – the ball hit the crossbar and would have made it over with a few more inches of lift – Esiason took the miss as proof of the soundness of his strategy. For the next several plays, he found several opportunities to remind the audience of coach Caldwell’s perceived negligence.

After the miss, possession returned to the Packers. They gained all of one yard in three downs before punting the ball right back to the Lions. The result was not surprising given the poor play of the Packers offense. I would not have expected the good field position to somehow enhance Hundley’s play. The Lions ended up with the ball deep in their own territory (on the 9-yard line), and Esiason bitterly pointed out that this positioning was the fault of Caldwell’s poor decision-making. Even as the Lions methodically marched the ball up the field, Esiason continued to complain that Caldwell forced his offense to work harder than needed. The Lions ended this drive with a touchdown and took a 14-0 lead. The success of the Lions suddenly diminished the power of Esiason’s argument which relied so heavily on the post-decision results.

Sportscasters straddle a fine line between descriptive recitals of the moment in real-time and sober consideration of a myriad of decisions emanating from coaches and players. That line can blur enough such that heat of the moment observations appear to prove the claims of the previous moment. I understand the pressures. Yet, a football game unfolds through multiple possibilities, and sportscasters can become overly focused on one particularly compelling path. In THIS game, Esiason made strong claims and did not consider alternative realities or sufficient data points. I think if he went back to review the entire context, he might reconsider.

Fortunately in business and in life we usually have the opportunity to take some time to challenge our gut instincts and consider the full context. We can collect some hard data on key assumptions behind our preferred decision. We can use our playbook as an initial map to the game, but we do not have to lock into a single course of action or commit to a single set of pre-conceived set of probabilities. When our field goal is waiting for the call, we can ask for the odds of success. We can look to the defense and assess the odds of stopping a poorly playing offense. We can inspect the offense and uncover its ability and determination to score from any point on the field.

Try that kick!

Jeff Bezos and More: In Defense of the Value of Valedictorians

Jeff Bezos is one of the most successful valedictorians in American history.
Jeff Bezos is one of the most successful valedictorians in American history.

Source: Steve Jurvetson – Flickr: Bezos’ Iconic Laugh, CC BY 2.0

Jeff Bezos is known as the founder and CEO of Amazon.com (AMZN). The stock for his company is toying with the $1000 level for the first time ever and is close to pushing Bezos past Bill Gates as the world’s richest man.

Amazon.com (AMZN) trades near an all-time high as it flirts with a historic $1000 level.
Amazon.com (AMZN) trades near an all-time high as it flirts with a historic $1000 level.

Source: FreeStockCharts.com

As of May 25, 2017, Bezos had an estimated $82.8B net worth. Bezos also graduated from Miami Palmetto High School as his class’s valedictorian. You would never believe this combination of information after reading headlines like this recent one from CNBC: “This is why class valedictorians don’t become millionaires.”

In this article, CNBC interviewed Eric Barker, author of the recently released book “Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.” Barker made the following strong claim:

“[Valedictorians] do well…but they don’t actually become billionaires or the people who change the world.”

Given the fame, fortune, and impact of Bezos, I wondered how could Barker make such a strident claim with no qualification and how the claim could be accepted with no critical review (CNBC was far from alone). I decided to do a quick internet search. In the top results, I discovered several sites which list famous, impactful, and even very rich people who were the valedictorians of their respective high school classes. I provide the list, edited by own cross-referencing, at the end of this post. This list is far from comprehensive. Given the readily available information, I have to assume that Barker started with a theory or hypothesis and focused on confirming data. It seems he mainly relied on the work of one researcher from Boston College, Karen Arnold. Again from the CNBC article:

“[Barker’s] assessments are based on research by Karen Arnold, a professor at Boston College and the author of ‘Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians: A Fourteen-year Study of Achievement and Life Choices.’ She tracked 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians after graduation…

…’Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,’ says Arnold. ‘They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.'”

I put aside the technicality that Arnold included salutatorians in her study and not just valedictorians. Instead, I was left unclear about the implicit relationship Barker drew between “billionaire” and “visionary” when Arnold did not appear to do so in her research. As far as I can tell from some references to Arnold’s 1995 book which followed graduates from the class of 1981, Arnold did not create monetary quantifications of success. However, I can definitely understand why someone with a money-based view of success would make the connection. Indeed, the hurdle Barker offers up as a definition of success is extremely high. The CNBC article produced this related quote from Barker’s book:

“There was little debate that high school success predicted college success. Nearly 90 percent are now in professional careers with 40 percent in the highest tier jobs. They are reliable, consistent and well-adjusted, and by all measures the majority have good lives.

But how many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world or impress the world?

The answer seems to be clear: zero.”

Zero impact. Nada. Not Jeff Bezos. Not Conan O’Brien. Not Sonia Sotomayor. Not W.E.B. Du Bois. And do not dare include General Douglas MacArthur. (See the end of this post for descriptions of these and other notable high school valedictorians).

Barker’s mistake was not just an over-reliance on a single, very old study. Barker also over-extrapolates and fails to consider the frame of reference for these strong claims that box valedictorians into a corner of inconsequence. (Ironically enough, Bezos seems to have graduated in 1982, one year after Arnold kicked off her study). Arnold’s sample is extremely small; the sample is too small to reliably test for the kinds of rarefied achievers that Barker highlights.

First of all, there are currently at least 22,000 high schools in the U.S. My estimate comes from the number of high schools referenced by the rankings of the U.S. News and World Report. So the U.S. presumably produces at least 22,000 valedictorians a year. For the sake of argument, I will reduce that number to 20,000 valedictorians in 1981. Arnold’s research subjects are 0.4% of the population for a given year and with each passing year, the numbers of valedictorians quickly overwhelm her longitudinal snapshot. If Arnold’s research were a survey, her results would include a whopping (minimum) margin of error of 11% for the class of 1981 assuming her sample was randomly selected (without bias). In other words, if the conclusion from this one study is that 0% of valedictorians grow up to be “world changers”, we could assume that repeating this study multiple times would generate observations of roughly as many as 11% (or 9) valedictorians of consequence in each trial.

Quantifying “world changing” is not easy, so it makes sense that Barker used the short-hand of billionaires. Yet, billionaires are like needles in a haystack. There are so few billionaires that in 2016, Forbes was easily able to list all 540 of them…and this is across DECADES of high school classes, not just one. I would love for someone to categorize this list by academic achievements and class years. Anyway, according to the Census Bureau estimate for 2016, the adult population of the U.S. was about 249,485,228. So the rate of billionaires in the adult population in general is 0.0002%. Using a sample size calculator, I find that I need 1,920,726 adults to conclude that my study group produces zero billionaires with 95% confidence.

The hurdle for millionaires matches Arnold’s sample. CNBC reported earlier this year that there are 10.8M millionaires in the U.S. That amount produces an incidence rate of 4.3% in the adult population (for the sake of simplicity, I am assuming all these millionaires are adults). The sample size calculator produces a study group size of 85. Yet, the only mentions of millionaires in the CNBC article are in the title and in a reference to a different study. I quote Barker’s use of this study from an article Barker wrote in Time’s Money to promote the book with the hyperbolic title “Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows“:

“School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down. Shawn Achor’s research at Harvard shows that college grades aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice. A study of over seven hundred American millionaires showed their average college GPA was 2.9.”

Barker again produced surprisingly strong conclusions based on a single result. Yet, this single result, a GPA of 2.9, is actually pretty good: just a small fraction below a B grade. Assuming that 2.0, a C grade, is average, this study showed that millionaires are above average academic achievers in college (putting aside grade inflation!), hardly a roll of the dice. I am willing to bet that the top academicians are partially responsible for pushing that study’s results above a 2.0 average.

A quick internet search helped me turn up another study of millionaires and their academic achievement. In 2016, Bloomberg reported on the work of economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis who used data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 and 2013:

“According to the sample, a black person’s odds of being a millionaire increase from less than 1 percent if he or she doesn’t complete high school to 6.7 percent with a graduate degree. White Americans without a high school diploma start out with slightly better chances—1.7 percent—that rapidly improve with more school: A graduate-level education increases their probability of amassing a net worth greater than $1 million to 37 percent.”

These differences are significant. Since it typically takes above average academic performance to get admitted to graduate school, THESE results seem to suggest that academic performance in college does matter in one’s drive to millionaire status. However, academics are obviously not the ONLY path to success.

The fact that there are multiple paths to success and riches tripped up “Rich Dad Poor Dad” author Robert Kiyosaki when he leveraged Arnold’s results to come to even stronger conclusions about success than Barker did. Back in 2013, Kiyosaki really slammed valedictorians when he wrote “Why Valedictorians Fail“:

“Professor Arnold discovered that, ‘while these students had the attributes to ensure school success, these characteristics did not necessarily translate into real-world success…. To know that a person is a valedictorian is only to know that he or she is exceedingly good at achievement as measured by grades. It tells you nothing about how they react to the vicissitudes of life.’

Translation: real life is not measured by grades but by your bank statement—and they don’t teach that in school.”

Kiyosaki has an even clearer money-based definition of success than Barker; if you are not rich, you have failed in life. Kiyosaki also slams valedictorians for being too timid: “Valedictorians don’t make good entrepreneurs and investors because they’re afraid of risk. They make great employees.” Poor Bezos!

Kiyosaki’s effort to portray valedictorians as failures buries the valuable message of resilience, boldness, and adaptability.

“The message is simple: Success in the classroom does not ensure success in the real world. The world of the future belongs to those who can embrace change, see the future and anticipate its needs, and respond to new opportunities and challenges with creativity and agility and passion.”

I would respond that academic success also does not exclude you from being the kind of wealthy success that Kiyosaki elevates. The list of valedictorians at the end of this post validate my claim.

After all this belittling of academic brilliance, I found humorous irony in a piece that featured Arnold defending the distinction of valedictorian as a way to honor academic achievement (emphasis mine):

“…being valedictorian is the one academic honor that does matter to students. We understand that athletes and performers merit special honors because their achievements represent hard work, focus, and motivation. So why shy away from awarding honors to students who succeed in academics?

…In 1995, I co-authored a book on what becomes of valedictorians later in life. We studied 17 years of data and determined that valedictorians become hardworking, productive adults whose educational and career achievements remain outstanding.”

Arnold is clearly not one to devalue valedictorians in the ways that Barker and Kiyosaki do. I daresay that Arnold’s main point was to build character profiles of top academic achievers and not to establish a hard and fixed ceiling of life achievement for these people. I further claim that using research in isolation, without considering a full context of data and analysis, and/or failing to review multiple possibilities leaves us vulnerable to confirmation bias and weakens our ability to lean against counter-arguments.

So overall, I say “GO!” to all of you star academicians who wish to walk in the footsteps of Bezos and so many other extremely successful people!

A LIST OF FAMOUS HIGH SCHOOL VALEDICTORIANS – a healthy mix of successful, impactful, non-conformist, and even wealthy academic achievers

(List compiled from ranker.com and Newsday with cross-checking from Wikipedia and Biography.com. High school names and graduation years were not available for all personalities.)

  • Jeff Bezos: founder, CEO, and Chairman of Amazon.com – Miami Palmetto High School, 1982 (?).
  • Douglas MacArthur – general known for World War II battles: West Texas Military Academy.
  • W.E.B. Du Bois – sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor, first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard: “an all-White high school in Massachusetts” late 19th century.
  • Sonia Sotomayor – U.S. Supreme Court Justice: Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, 1972.
  • Coretta Scott King – civil rights activist (wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.): Lincoln Normal School, 1945.
  • Conan O’Brien – comedian, last night talk show host: Brookline High School, 1981.
  • Weird Al Yankovic – music artist specializing in parodies: Lynwood High School.
  • Kevin Spacey – actor: Chatsworth High School in Chatsworth, California, 1977 (co-valedictorian).
  • Mare Winningham – actress: Chatsworth High School in Chatsworth, California, 1977 (co-valedictorian).
  • Cole Porter – music composer: Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, early 20th century.
  • Jodie Foster – actress: the Lycée Français de Los Angeles, a French-language prep school, 1980.
  • David Duchovny – actor (made famous by the X-Files): the Collegiate School in Manhattan.
  • Chevy Chase – comedian, actor: Stockbridge School.
  • Cindy Crawford – model: DeKalb High School, 1984.
  • Bette Midler – actress, singer: Radford High School.
  • Alicia Keys – singer: Professional Performing Arts School.
  • Johnny Bench – major league baseball player: Binger-Oney High School in Binger, Oklahoma
  • Tiffani Thiessen – actress: Valley Professional High School in Studio City, Los Angeles, 1992.
  • Emmylou Harris – singer and musician: Gar-Field Senior High School.
  • Harry Anderson – actor: Buena Park High School then North Hollywood High School, 1970.
  • William Peter Blatty – author (wrote the Exorcist): Brooklyn Preparatory, a Jesuit school, 1946.
  • Troian Bellisario – actress: Campbell Hall School in North Hollywood, California.

{Addendum: title changed and small corrections made on June 5, 2017}

Twitter’s “Tragedy of the Commons”

The “tragedy of the commons” (Garrett Hardin, 1968) is a concept in economics that describes how a group of self-interested individuals can destroy a shared (and free) resource. Hardin’s classic is example is a group of herders who destroy a pasture as each herder maximizes his/her number of grazing cows to make the most use of the shared (common) pasture. The tragedy is that the destruction of the pasture is in no one’s interest even as maximizing use of the pasture may be in each individual’s interest. It seems Twitter may have brought the tragedy of the commons to the internet.

In “Can Twitter Be Saved?,” Mark Gimein writes that Twitter will collapse from the sheer volume of users and messages if users do not focus and reduce the number of their feeds, and if Twitter does not develop some automated tools for helping users filter out the garbage from the useful. Gimein’s description of the typical Twitter behavior strikes me as a classic tragedy of the commons scenario: users (herders) barrage their followers with messages in an effort to attract the limited and finite resource of attention (the pasture). Access to this attention is free and messages effortlessly accumulate for all to peruse, so it is no wonder that many users liberally sprinkle “Twitter-space” with chatter and, in parallel, follow as many users as possible in an effort to attract as large an audience as possible.

While charging for anything on the Internet is tantamount to heresy, Twitter may be forced to set up some kind of fee structure to have any hope of constructing a more useful (and efficient) experience as the number of users appears ready to engulf the entire planet. Here is one example of what Twitter can do (my own unsolicited advice):

1. Charge a small fee to join, say $10/year; perhaps even charge $50-100+/year for corporate accounts where identity is authenticated and validated by Twitter. This fee mainly captures some of the immense value that people get out of the service and provides some funds to develop the automated tools that Gimein recommends. It also gives users one extra sense of ownership and, perhaps, an incentive to act responsibly. Of course, venture funding could easily replace subscription funding but only in the short-term. Someday, Twitter will need to generate sustainable revenues from something (even if it is charity!).
2. Charge a very small fee for messaging. There are many ways to do this, but the fairest method would be to charge something like a penny for each tweet past some high daily or weekly threshold. This provides the financial incentive to focus messages.

One might reasonably ask why Facebook does not face a similar problem with a tragedy of the commons. I suggest that Facebook is not a commons where anyone can and will attempt to siphon off a user’s precious attention. On Facebook, users typically only accept links to friends and family and people one or two degrees separated from that closed network. Because users either know or know of everyone in their network, there is an automatic incentive to ration attention-grabbing activity. Users are their to share their lives and to participate in the lives of others. There exists a huge incentive to focus one’s network on the things that really matter in one’s life and not to drown those moments and memories with trivialities and incessant self-promotion. Facebook does not need pricing to encourage self-regulation: it has self-interest working in lockstep with group-interest.

Disney increases theme park prices despite drop in revenues

Disney has increased prices at Walt Disney World despite experiencing a drop in revenues last quarter. In its earnings reported July 30, the company had this to say about operating income: “Lower operating income at the Walt Disney World Resort was primarily due to decreased guest spending and lower corporate alliance income recognition, partially offset by lower costs. Decreased guest spending was driven by lower average daily hotel room rates and lower average ticket prices, which included the impact of promotional programs such as our Buy 4, Get 3 Free program.”

So, how can Disney raise prices right after experiencing these kinds of declines in customer spending? Clearly, the company has a lot of confidence in its branding and large mind share when it comes to family entertainment at theme parks. In fact president and CEO Robert A. Iger said as much: “While a tough global economy impacted our performance in the quarter, we remain encouraged by the relative strength of our business…That strength is the result of Disney’s combination of strong brands, consistent business strategy and the steps we’ve taken to make our businesses more efficient without sacrificing quality.”

More importantly, I suspect that Disney discovered that their promotions did not significantly increase foot traffic into the theme park. In other words, demand for Disney World remains relatively inelastic, even in this recession. It appears that Disney will be better served getting more revenue out of the core group of consumers who attend its theme park for many more reasons beyond price.

Disney’s stock dropped 4% on the day in response to the poor earnings and revenue report. I will be checking in again next quarter to review the impact of these price increases.