As most of you know, Texas Tech came back from 31 down with 7 minutes to go in the third quarter to beat Minnesota. What was amazing to me, as I watched the game, was that despite the short time frame, the entire thing happened almost sleepily. The "comeback" appeared like some odd mixture of luck and manifest destiny. Minnesota did not really lose the game like most teams who give up huge comebacks do. Indeed, Minnesota should be a team designed to control second half leads: they have an impressive running game and a methodical passing game to complement it. Minnesota did not turn the ball over in the second half, and got a number of first downs. Tech did not get particularly good field position, either. The most frantic moment of the entire game was Tech's 90+ yard drive to kick a 52-year field goal, and even that still seemed surprisingly serene.
So what was the deal? What does a 31 point comeback look like? Was Tech a better team that shot itself in the foot in the first half? Did Minnesota collapse? Did the players give up? Did the coaches get "conservative" as many commentators like to say? How does a team score 7 points in one half and 31 points in a quarter and a half, and then another TD in overtime?
Football Offense and the "Hot-Hand" Theory
The entirely "rational" me wants to say that the simple answer is statistical variance: What appears as "streakiness" or a "hot-streak" is no more than random events happening to occur in a bunched pattern rather than spread out--an entirely expected result. Flip a coin fifty times. The coin probably will not land on heads neatly two times followed by two tails followed by a heads, followed by a tails, followed by three heads, followed by another two tails and then two heads in a fairly even pattern. No, instead you'll see "oddities" like fifteen heads in a row followed by twelve tails.
There actually is an entire field of study dedicated to this idea regarding sports, investing, and other facets of life and it is called the "hot hand fallacy." (See also here, and here.) Surely we've all experienced and witnessed the "hot streak" or the "cold streak" in basketball where a shooter has a poor half and then literally can't miss in the second. We see the swing in momentum, the crowd cheering or silenced, the shooter's swagger, his confidence, his teammates feeding him the ball, and his confidence to shoot it from anywhere on the court with a hand in his face.
Except that is an illusion. At least according to researchers Gillovich, Vallone, and Tversky: If you're a 40% field goal shooter for the season, you're pretty much a 40% shooter all the time, even if in one game you shot 20-22 and another 1-15. It evens out over time. The difference is just chance.
This same logic applies to football, and to no offense in football more than Texas Tech's. Clearly, over the last several years Tech's offense has been one of the most productive in football. It's been well documented that Leach's offense often sputters for a quarter or two before exploding to score points at an almost ridiculous pace. So maybe the comeback wasn't such an aberration. 44 points is not so abnormal for them--what's the difference if they had scored those touchdowns on every other drive over the course of the entire game, rather than scoring them all in the second half?
This is an attractive answer to me (though probably repulsive to many) and I think sheds a lot of light on Tech's so-called "streaky" offense. This is an empowering thought, and in many ways the fact that the coaches and players believe that at core the offense will "come around" and "play like normal" helps them stay relaxed and able to excute. I think it is also a lesson to playcallers, coaches, and players to stay patient, understand the plan, and to think about the big picture. It also puts individual quarters, plays, and games in perspective. A very good QB can have a very bad half or quarter that is little more than "bad luck" in a very real and scientific sense. It exposes media and opposing coaches as nearsighted and uninformed when they watch Tech have a bad series or half and deride Leach's "gimmick" offense, ignoring the years of incredible productivity.
They shouldn't be surprised at this kind of result. Leach's offense is designed to take on the big-boys and win shootouts, not to protect leads. Even if your completion percentage is 65% and you average six yards per rush, it's not hard to string 6 or 9 poor or mediocre plays together. That's three series' and on some days that's an entire half of football.
But is this really the answer? After the game, Mike Leach was in tears. Glen Mason was fired. The players talked about heart, commitment, believing, etc. Which is it?
Performing Under Pressure
The answer is probably a bit of both. Some later studies have claimed that the hot-hand theory is real when you focus on less experienced athletes. Tiger Woods has shot so many golf balls in so many pressure and non-pressure situations that his chance of making a putt is the same whether it is a putt to par after shooting five poor shots to win the Masters or if it is the same putt for practice on the putting green--even if he himself thinks otherwise. But for Bill Woods, local insurance agent, the hot hand is probably real.
High School kids and college kids, including Tech's sophomore quarterback, are probably going to rise and fall and experience the psychological effects in a very real sense. They're too pronounced to ignore, and the young or inexperienced athletes don't have Tiger Woods's countless repetitions. I think few would argue that Tech's sophomore quarterback would have been able to recover to perform as he did in the second half had this game occured in the middle of the season, and this win will likely further his and the whole team's ability to just keep playing and treat it like any other situation.
One thing that is unique to Tech is something Dick Vermeil mentioned while announcing the game: If ever there was a team designed to come back from 31 down, it is Tech. They literally had to change nothing in their offense. They are always trying to score, get first downs, be patient and methodical, and put pressure on the defense. Were the tables turned, Minnesota is not designed to do the same. So this affects the percentages. Even if the percentages of throwing completions down 31 are the same as they are up 31, they are probably different for Minnesota because they would be facing entirely different defenses than they are used to and executing plays thay do not use or practice as much.
The upshot of all this is simply that, particularly from an offensive standpoint, you practice to remove emotion and to remove the hot hand effect. You want to be Michael Jordan looking at the game winning free throw like it is just the 156th free throw after a routine practice. I think what made Leach come to tears after the game is that everyone on the team--coaches, player, fans--went about their business as usual. Tech didn't come back by launching hail marys, running trick plays (not to take anything away from Boise--who outplayed and outcoached OU for the entire game), grabbing turnovers or even really getting lucky breaks. Everyone bought into the system and the program, did their job, played smart football, and performed.
I think what brought Leach to tears is the realization that, for young kids in the hyperbolic football world, sometimes it's brave and valiant simply to do your job.
This game was aired on the NFL Network, which most people do not get. The NFL has however put the entire game online in streaming real video here. I wish more networks would do this. (ESPN anyone? I have to download their video every time I go to their site whether I want to or not but I've never seen them put a game online in its entirety like this.)