Is The NFL Like Blackjack?
After the Lions lost by three to the 49ers Sunday night, there’s been a lot of talk about some of Lions coach Dan Campbell’s decisions. The less controversial one is running the ball on third and goal during the final drive and essentially sealing the team’s fate by using a timeout he needed on defense. People universally agree both running (and especially burning that TO) were poor decisions and contributed to the loss.
But the ones more open to debate were the decisions to go for it on 4th-and-short, both down three late and up 14 early in the third quarter, that failed. Should Campbell have attempted the field goals in those instances?
This analysis is perfectly reasonable as to whether going for it or kicking was a better decision on average. And in games like blackjack, what’s true on average is your best bet generally — in other words, there is no difference between a simulated blackjack game and the real thing. The values and rules applying to each card are exactly the same.
But every NFL game is a one-off event with unique teams and circumstances. What’s true on average might or might not apply in a particular instance, whether due to momentum, psychology or the particular strengths and weaknesses of each team. Humans, unlike decks of cards or coins or dice, have memories. That doesn’t mean Campbell read the situation more rightly or wrongly in this instance. I have no idea — he made the decision, it failed, and he bears the consequences. Shoudla, woulda, coulda really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether his process was good. The NFC champion has already been crowned.
I just write this to point out that whether Campbell made the right hit/stay (go/kick) decision like it was blackjack elides over an important assumption: whether in cases like this, we should treat NFL in-game decisions like blackjack ones. A lot of what passes for “analytics” skips over that question and proceeds directly to the stay/hit one.
But that is a rather significant omission because in reality — and an NFL game takes place in reality — the map and the territory are not the same. It’s perfectly okay to admit you lack the tools to read the territory and prefer to use your map. But to be traveling by map and not even realize you’re doing it, to discount even the possibility of local knowledge beyond its symbolic representations is, in my opinion, folly.