What Would Buddy Do?
The illusion of competence and the price of optimism
Posted on November 11th, 2008 at 11:59 am by Cheesesteak Hoagie

It’s amazing what a tough loss to a division opponent can do to Eagles fans. Even with a week-old World Championship for the Phils, watching the Eagles blow a close game comma again can still manage to infuriate the supporters. How does that work? Time for some hypothesizin’!

I think there are two things at play here. The first is that this Eagles team does a good job of creating the illusion of competence. That is, beyond the standard everyone-in-Philly-think-the-Eagles-are-going-to-the-Super-Bowl-every-year thing, the past two editions of the Eagles have actually been fairly statistically successful. They’re a strong DVOA team that seems to compare well across a number of categories. And if you look at this year’s team versus last year’s team, they’ve actually improved on a number of fronts (special teams, pass protection, creating turnovers). On paper, they’re pretty good. Vegas seems to agree (the Eagles have been favored in every game except the Dallas game). They’re doing all the right things that the statisticians and ratings agencies seem to believe are vital to succeeding in the NFL.

The problem here is that football is a lousy game for statistics. With 16 games and a dozen possessions per game for each team, the sample size is pretty thin — especially when you consider the game-over-game changes to lineups due injury, etc etc. And the small sample size means that a few big moments typically decide the game. It just so turns out that the Eagles are terrible at those moments. They’re terrible in short yardage, and they’re terrible at clock management at the end of halves/ games. Given the comparative level of parity in the NFL, being terrible at those things will mean that you’re not going to win as many games as your statistics would suggest. Essentially, the Eagles seem solid on paper but stink at the things that matter.

Of course, what do we care about the illusion of competence. In fact, as fans, we should love it — it’s what keeps us watching, and it’s what creates the pervasive optimism around this team. We look at the stats, we look at the line, and we think YES — WE ARE BETTER THAN OUR RECORD! Once we get __ and __ figured out, we can get this thing rolling toward the Super Bowl!

Unfortunately, the people in charge of the Eagles seem to share that optimism (well, not Sheldon Brown, but definitely the coaches) in game situations. That is, on game day they seem to think that they’re better than they are, and that their flaws don’t exist. (The “game situation” caveat is important — I think Andy Reid is very rational with his personnel decisions: special teams stink = we need more special teamers; Eagles stink at turnovers = spend big money for a guy with a knack for interceptions.) So Andy Reid seems to think that his short-yardage offense and two-minute clock management approach are fine, and can be trusted. That is, despite data to the contrary, he seems optimistic about his ability to succeed in these situations. And the price of optimism is repeated failures at the goal line and in two-minute/ endgame scenarios. The fans can afford that optimism; the coaches cannot.

(Or, put more succinctly, it’s just last year’s (8-8) team, but with a better punt returner.)

Comments so far:

Link Here | November 11, 2008,

Great post. Now I understand the Eagles.

Comment by brah

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