Sean Payton (2/9/2010)

By Paul Bessire

Sean Payton just led the Saints to their first ever Super Bowl victory to cap off a remarkable turnaround of the franchise. During the game, he made some unique calls that worked in his favor. But were they the right calls?

Is Sean Payton reckless or a genius?

The answer is yes. He is a little bit of both.

In last week's Welcome blog entry, I made the comment that, "Coaches are typically more concerned with external, social pressures than winning - to the point where many 'aggressive' coaches are often that way because they think they are supposed to be, not because they are taking a sound approach." While Colts' head coach Jim Caldwell represents an extreme case on the overly conservative side where not losing is more important than winning, Sean Payton comes dangerously close to being the latter case - a coach who is so aggressive just to be aggressive that he borders on reckless.

As I hope to discuss at length in this blog, as countless poker players have found out over the online explosion of the game, and as the adage states, "fortune favors the bold." Aggression is rewarded - in the long run and as long as it is not reckless. In general, teams should attempt fourth down conversions far more frequently than they do and stray from convention toward a winning strategy rather than a "not losing" one. Unfortunately, coaches are not always allowed to be judged in the long-term, so one non-conventional decision, right-or-wrong, that goes poorly will be excessively scrutinized (See: 2009 Patriots vs. Colts).

Over 50,000 games, this is easy to see. The best example of aggression succeeding in football is the 1999 St. Louis Rams. When played against every Super Bowl champion 50,000 times each, the ultra-aggressive, Mike Martz-led, "Greatest Show on Turf," comes out on top. The team made bold decisions and always attacked on both sides of the ball. The 1999 Rams put up some mind-blowing statistics that revolutionized the game... They won Super Bowl XXXIV by just one yard. If it had not been for that tackle by linebacker Mike Jones, the brilliance of the 1999 Rams may have been lost. In just one game or just one play, almost anything can happen, but just because the Super Bowl was close does not mean that the Rams are not one of the greatest of all-time. After that season, Martz let his ego and the success of the 1999 season get to his head, needlessly pushed his philosophy to become recklessly aggressive and has never been the same since. (The story of the 2007 New England Patriots, who would top the all-time champions list had they won, is very similar. The "one-yard" in the Super Bowl just didn't go their way. Public perception and timing makes the aggressive approach a tough line to walk.)

How does Sean Payton's decision-making in Super Bowl XLIV play into this discussion? Let's look at two crucial scenarios (in reverse order).

The Onside Kick:
When analyzing whether the Saints' onside kick to open the second half was the right thing to do, we need to be concerned with the likelihood of failure of the attempt as compared to the likelihood of the Colts to advance the ball to that point on the drive anyway. In this case, past onside kick success rates are irrelevant as most of them come out of desperation when the opposing team is fully aware that they are coming. Of course converting an onside kick is highly unlikely when the opposition is prepared, but that is not the case here. Also mostly irrelevant are score and time and for similar reasons. Score is not important because there is so much time left that the goal for the Saints right now is still to accumulate as many points as possible. Time is not of much relevance because the half is starting. Usually, this analysis should account for any time that it takes for the Colts to move the ball to the spot where they may recover it, but that is not as big of a deal with the full 30 minutes left on the clock. In essence, that makes the beginning of a half the perfect timing for this call. And, momentum is essentially a myth, so succeeding or failing at the onside kick should not have much additional worth besides how it affects the game situation at the time.

So, while there are obviously some additional benefits from success, the most basic way to approach this problem is to compare the likelihood that the Saints fail giving the Colts the ball around the Saints' 45-yard-line to the chance that, following a normal kick, Peyton Manning leads a drive that makes it to the Saints' 45-yard-line (anything they do after that isn't important either). If it is close to as likely or even more likely that the Colts will make it to the likely recovery spot on the ensuing drive than it is that the onside fails, then the decision is a no-brainer.

Without a great kick returner, let's assume that the Colts start with the ball at their own 20. How likely is it that the Colts drive 35 yards from their 20 to the Saints' 45? In 17 of 28 meaningful post-season drives (against very good defenses), the Colts picked up at least 35 yards. In 17 of 31 meaningful post-season drives (against very good offenses), the Saints allowed at least 35 yards. Furthermore, the Colts exceeded 35 yards on all but one meaningful drive in the Super Bowl itself. Additionally, the Colts' adjusted-yards-per-play metric that we analyze ranked third in the league over the course of the regular and post seasons, while the Saints defense was just below league average, ranking 18th in adjusted-yards-per-play. Factor that all in and the Colts were around 65% likely to get to the Saints' 45-yard-line on the drive following a normal kick.

All Sean Payton needed to justify an onside kick attempt at that point in the game was about 1-in-3 chance of success. That's much higher than the expected success of a normal onside, but sounds realistic given the situation and element of surprise. The likely 2:1 failure-to-success ratio makes the move risky, but not reckless. It paid off. Sean Payton is a genius.

Third and goal from the 1:
Our research suggests that, independent of score and time, teams should "go for it" whenever they are presented with fourth-and-goal from the three-yard-line or less. The likelihood of success is essentially enough to even out the points from a sure field goal, while, in the event of a failure, the field position gain puts the "go for it" approach over the top in the analysis. Late the first half, with score not yet a factor (the goal in the first three quarters is to score as many points as possible), Sean Payton was faced with a decision along these lines. With fourth-and-goal from about the two-yard-line and just 1:49 remaining in the half, Payton had the added advantage of knowing that Jim Caldwell's conservative style meant that, if the Saints went for it and failed, the Colts would probably try to run out as much clock as possible as opposed to trying to score (as you can guess, Caldwell's strategy is not optimal, but that's a different blog). Payton made what should have been the obvious call and went for it. Sean Payton is a genius.

Except for one thing. Payton's decision making on the preceding third down was a bit reckless. With the ball inside the one-yard-line on third down and knowing that going for it on fourth is the best decision, there are only two logical play-call options for third and fourth downs: QB sneak, QB sneak; or throw fade, QB sneak. I am all for aggression, but there is a point when common sense and game theory should kick in and safest does mean smartest. A QB sneak guarantees forward movement, while eliminating the possibility for moving backward or fumbling an exchange. Two sneaks should be able to pick up a yard. If not, then the team was just unlucky and the opposing team still gets the ball as close its own goalline as possible. Throwing a fade has a very low likelihood of being intercepted and will not result in negative yardage so it is acceptable as well. Payton elected to handoff the ball twice and lost yards. Sean Payton is reckless.

Ultimately, the Saints still got points before the half ended and the Colts did not. And in the end, New Orleans spread the field on offense, yet never tried to pick-up more than they could. They attacked Peyton Manning on defense without leaving themselves too vulnerable. The Saints won the game by 14 points. So it is hard to argue against the fact that Sean Payton is a football genius; he just got a little reckless around the goalline. Thankfully, that did not hurt him.