Momentum, Luck and Mariota
If you’ve been on twitter at any point over the past two or three years, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed debates over momentum. Weirdly, momentum is a subject that pulls more passion out of NFL analysts than most subjects.
Part of the passion is the greater influence of analytics. We live in a time where there is a prevailing cultural acceptance that numbers are what matter most.
Numbers are logical and linear. If a team produces good numbers on one drive, it has nothing to do with how they perform on the following drive. If one team is winning at halftime, the only reason they should be more likely to win in the second half is because they are playing with a lead.
There aren’t numbers that track momentum. It’s viewed as a figment from the collective imagination of those who aren’t intelligent enough to better analyze the game. If you believe in momentum and discuss it, you are almost certainly going to be degraded for doing so.
You’ll likely be laughed at and presented as a stone-age dweller rather than an academic who is pushing sports analysis to greater heights.
Whether momentum exists or not is actually irrelevant. Momentum is about belief and confidence. Even if it doesn’t physically exist, it still impacts the results of games. How is that the case? What matters with momentum is how the players and coaches interpret it.
Those who believe in momentum will do one of two things when their opponents are playing well. They will either lose confidence and belief to perform nervously or apathetically, or they will show resolve to up their intensity in the hopes of reversing their fortunes. Those who don’t believe in momentum are less likely to be intimidated when things don’t appear to be going their way but they are also less likely to enjoy that spike of intensity.
All the time that is spent debating momentum is wasted because it really doesn’t matter if it exists or not. Its impact will always be felt by a huge percentage of people who find themselves in the competitive atmosphere that team sports create.
Debating the existence of momentum is like debating the existence of love or hatred, it doesn’t really matter if those things exist or not so long as people continue to feel them.
What should be discussed more than momentum is luck. Whether you’re an analytical type of onlooker or a more traditional sports fan, luck is something that is generally discounted. Luck is only received as a criticism; As something that can be used to discredit the quality of a player or team on the field.
It’s unclear why luck is received this way. The safest presumption is that coaches tend to instil a belief in young people that they control their destinies, that everything they do will matter and that there are no excuses for losing. Accepting the existence of luck and its impact is accepting that not everything is in your control.
Those who do talk about luck typically suggest that it evens out over time.
Rarely does anyone have any reasoning for this belief. Anyone that does typically doesn’t have logical reasoning. It’s just a way of acknowledging the existence of luck while dismissing its actual impact on the outcome of plays/games.
Even if we accept this idea that luck evens out, how does luck know how long a season is? How does luck know how long a career is? The NFL season lasts 16 games for most teams, does a team that gets lucky over the first eight games of the year suffer during the second eight because of it? Is the balance between fortune and misfortune reset to level by the time the season ends.
What happens in the playoffs though? If one team only plays 16 games and another plays 19, does it still balance out for each team?
All of this seems obvious when written down in front of you, yet the wider landscape of NFL fans will mostly dismiss the idea that luck should be a factor in analysis. As soon as you accept that players and teams have different levels of luck over different periods of time, you’ll become a better analyst.
It can be breaking down one single play, one player, one team or one full season. Luck has to be accounted for.
This is something that has come up a lot over recent years when interacting with fans and other writers. It’s something that propped itself up again recently when I was going through all of the throws made by every quarterback in the league for a project that won’t post for a month or two.
Marcus Mariota threw this interception against the Buffalo Bills in Week 5. The Tennessee Titans quarterback was trying to bring his team back from a one-point deficit with fewer than two minutes remaining.
He didn’t have to force the ball down the field, but the situation suggested that he needed to play with more aggression than usual.
Even without considering that he was a rookie, Mariota took care of the ball very well this season. He doesn’t force the ball into coverage unnecessarily and is able to read the full field from the pocket to repeatedly find open receivers.
Considering all of that, this play was surprising on first viewing. It looked like a pass that Mariota forced downfield to a covered receiver because of the pressure that came on him in the pocket.
This is the design of the play. Mariota knows this before the ball is snapped. The Bills know that Mariota isn’t a deep passer, preferring to work intermediate and short routes. As such, it’s no surprise that they come out showing a single-high safety with plenty of defenders over the middle of the field.
It’s important to note immediately who the personnel are and where they are lined up.
Harry Douglas is to the top of the screen working against Ronald Darby. Douglas is left alone on the backside of this play. The veteran struggled to get open all season long so Mariota would have known that he was his last read on this play. To the left, Justin Hunter is wide of the numbers and Kendall Wright is in the slot. Delanie Walker is running a shall crossing route from the right tight end spot.
As was the case so often last season, Mariota’s protection broke down before the receivers could run their routes downfield. He was left with two choices, take a sack or try to hit a tight window downfield. His safety releases were all covered, with Delanie Walker drawing two defenders on his shallow crossing route.
Kendall Wright, the slot receiver to the left, was going to be open on his double move route.
Mariota had to make an accurate throw while pushing the ball downfield with enough velocity to beat the safety working across the middle of the field. At the point when Mariota releases the ball, the cornerback covering Justin Hunter, Stephon Gilmore, is running with the receiver down the sideline.
Hunter should clear Gilmore out of that space so Wright has a small window to run into. Hunter does this by sprinting through his route, but while the ball is in the air Gilmore stumbles. Stumbling actually helps the cornerback because it leaves him in the perfect position to pick off Mariota’s pass.
While he obviously had to take advantage of the opportunity with his skill, Gilmore was lucky to get this opportunity. Mariota was unlucky to give it up.
Evaluating Mariota on this play leads you to talk about how he was unlucky. Evaluating the Titans offense as a whole allows you to criticize his pass protection that failed way too quickly. The quarterback’s pass protection took away his options and forced him into this situation. He was almost able to transcend his teammates’ impact to create a big play, but instead ended the game.
Luck doesn’t have to be a dismissive or even a decisive statement. It can just be part of the overall play. It’s not something that is always a factor but knowing when to acknowledge it and when not to is a part of analysis.
Analysis is all about interpretation. Hard facts don’t tell you enough when each play has 22 individuals all contributing to the result and each other’s play.
Momentum and luck are pushed into the same department of football analysis. Neither are quantifiable or widely accepted. Momentum is argued over more, but luck is the bigger issue. It should be acceptable to call an individual or a team lucky without being considered a hater or being accused of being stubborn because of a previous opinion.