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Icing on the cake

Readers chime in on late-game strategy

Posted: Friday January 21, 2005 2:52PM; Updated: Friday January 21, 2005 6:10PM
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Kicker Doug Brien missed two field goals in the final two minutes of the Jets' loss to the Steelers in the divisional playoffs.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

You will allow me, please, to submit a blanket thanks (thanks, blanket, you are nice and warm) ... uh, a blanket thanks to all you kind folks who said such kind things, especially about my Coaching Not To Lose column. Believe me, they are greatly appreciated, and I'd do it individually except that the endless repetition doesn't make for comfortable reading.

E-mailer of the Week is Captain Martin of Delran, N.J., who took the trouble to supply the answer to an intriguing question posed last week by an e-mailer, Eric of Bristol, Va., and one that I couldn't answer: Statistically, does it make sense to ice the kicker? That's what I like to see, my e-mailers helping one another. Anyway, our capitan sent me an article from the Science News, which came to the following conclusion, based on the input of two statisticians during the 2002 and 2003 seasons: In pressure situations (three minutes or less to go, a kick that would create a tie or a lead change) 101 of 139 pressure kicks (73 percent) were good. But when the defense called time out and iced the kicker, the percentage drops to 63 (24 of 38 kicks).

More stats from the Science News -- the "estimated probability" (and I'm afraid my eyes are starting to glaze over with this one ... why estimate anything?) of a successful 40-yard field goal in sunny weather is 0.759, but when the kicker has been iced, it drops down to 0.659. This sent our two statisticians into a positive frenzy. My feeling is that the study didn't include enough attempts or variables to be conclusive.

But I really want to thank Captain Martin, who suggests that maybe I can enjoy the statistical analysis "over tea with the Flaming Redhead."

Naturally I showed this to same Redhead, advising her to get the pot out immediately, and she responded with the following stream of consciousness: "He's British ... I just know he's British. Ask him what the Captain stands for ... or better still, let him fill in one of the blanks ... Are you a captain ... 1) in the army, 2) of a ship, 3) in the Air Force or of a commercial airline, 4) of a team, and if so, do you want to kick or receive?" I'm just passing this along, cap. Next move is up to you, and as you know, the traditional rule that I just created is that any former e-mailer of the Week gets an automatic free entry on subsequent e-mails. You paying attention, Andrew?

I was thinking about this whole icing matter, so I sent my query along to the good Doctor Stamms of Stats, Inc. He came up with the following: Pressure kicks (using the same guidelines as described above, except that they're in the last two minutes, not three) since 1991, regular season -- 457 of 637 (71.7 percent) made, without icing on them. After icing, the number is 152 of 211 (72 percent). So it's a push. Next week we'll discuss kicks with frosting instead of icing.

Former E-mailer of the Week Bill Schu of Bloomfield, N.J., hopped the turnstile and immediately got to the platform with this one. Whoops, it's praise ... for crystallizing the thinking of Jets fans throughout the land on the unfortunate finish to their season. Funny thing ... a few football people I talked to kind of defended Herman Edward's decision to settle for a long field goal. But not one fan offered a defense ... most of them were as whacked out about it as I was. Just goes to show -- fans, whose opinions usually are uncluttered by the trappings of civility, have a much clearer picture.

Alan of Ambler, Pa., who has coached more than 100 youth league games, says, "If a coach shows his players he is afraid they will do something wrong, they probably will."

Interesting take on Herm's strategy from Joseph D. of Point Pleasant, N.J. Could it possibly trace back to the infamous Miracle of the Meadowlands when Edwards, an Eagles' cornerback in those days, ran a Giants fumble back all the way to pull the game out in the dying moments? Yes, I actually think so. Yes I do. The vivid memories of youth doth, uh, I'm trying to think of something profound, but ... let's just say that memories such as that never die. And I really enjoyed that Jimmy Johnson story you shared with me, in which Johnson told his coordinator, Norv Turner, to "get me a first down," when the strategy called for running the clock.

Herb of Manhattan Beach, Calif., adds three names to the Playing Not to Lose list -- Tony Dungy, Dan Reeves, Bill Cowher. I'm not sure. I haven't really noticed it about Cowher. Maybe in the old days. Dungy doesn't get involved with the offense and Tom Moore generally lets Peyton Manning handle the attack in the clutch. And I think Reeves was more of an action guy, although I could be wrong.

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Richard of Lewisburg, Pa., wonders if coaches of this ilk should undergo a special training session to convince them of the folly of their ways. That's just it, they don't see anything wrong. They think they're playing some sort of percentages.

Speaking of percentages, Jeff of Folsom, Calif., puts an interesting numerical spin on it: Disaster ratio, or the chance of a lost ball or lost yardage, around 15 percent. Chance of a missed field goal: 20 percent, since kickers average 80 percent made now. And in Heinz Field from over 40 yards I think it's up around 45 percent. It's fun playing with numbers, isn't it? Humble little beggars, they'll do just about anything you ask of them.

Dan of Bloomington, Ind., while discussing Herm's decision, asks me what is the worst coaching decision I've ever seen. Ah, Danny Boy, you've given me an out, and the chance to spin a wonderful story, because you didn't specify that it had to be a football decision. I'm a Stanford student, about a million years ago. We're playing ... not quite sure ... could have been USC, in basketball, and we're down by three and one of our guys is fouled with about two seconds to go. He makes the first one. We call time out. Our coach, Bob Burnett, has to be telling the player to miss the second, and then what we'll do when the ball comes out. So what does the guy do? He makes the second one. SC throws the ball three quarters of the way down the court to inbound it, and the whistle blows. I watch Burnett to see what he'll say to the player who has blown it at the line. Not a word. "My God," I say to myself. "It was a coaching decision." Next day I can't wait to see Burnett's quotes in the Stanford Daily. There are none, except for, "It was the correct decision and that's all I'll say about it."

You're gonna enjoy the ending to this story. Next season Burnett is out as Stanford's basketball coach. But instead, he's working as the maitre'd at L'Omelette, the French restaurant a couple of miles down the El Camino Real. L'Ommie's, we called it. And around two or three times a night, when he'd say, "Can I show you to your table, sir?" someone would snap at him, "Two free throws, huh, Burnett?" I don't know how long he stayed at that job or whatever became of him, since I left the area before he did. Do I have a shred of pity or compassion for this poor soul? I do not. I'm getting mad just talking about it, but you must keep in mind that I'm once again seeing things through the eyes of an 18-year old sophomore. Thanks for your question. I'd just about forgotten this story, and now I'm looking for someone to yell at. Linda, c'mere!

On to general topics, who outranks Captain Martin. Frank of Monsey, N.Y., read the stuff in Mark Kriegel's book, Namath, about how Joe Willie wouldn't talk to me for nine years while I was on the beat and he wonders how I handled it and what the New York Post's reaction was. First the Post, which had created the problem in the first place by combining my byline with that of some city-side reporter. "Maybe you ought to switch with Gene Roswell and cover the Giants," my sports editor, Ike Gellis, told me. I got up on my high horse and told him not Namath nor anybody else was gonna run me off the beat. He shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said, "but it's gonna be rough." And it was, oh brother, was it. I'd like to be cool and say easy come, easy go, or something like that, but it was a nine-year nightmare -- literally. I used to have dreams about it at night. Not that I was alone. Namath didn't talk to Larry Fox, the beat man for the Daily News, nor Dick Young, the News' lead columnist, either. Plus a few others. We called ourselves the Namath Bad Guys. We were going to challenge the Namath Good Guys to a basketball game, but we lacked height ... we just had ball handlers. They had Big John Rowe and people like that.


Sports Illustrated senior writer Paul Zimmerman covers the NFL for the magazine and SI.com. His Power Rankings, "Inside Football" column and Mailbag appear weekly on SI.com.