Shrinking FIFA’s Footprint

The allegations of bribery surrounding Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup triggered an investigation that exposed much of the corruption at FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. In a piece for National Geographic’s “Voices” blog, I argue that the environmental impact of Qatar’s bid is even more egregious. Can FIFA call for a do-over?

http://on.natgeo.com/1SqREf0

The Politics of Climate Change and Hope

When celebrated novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote a long essay on the hopelessness of fighting global climate change and the need to focus on local conservation issues, he kicked off a firestorm of protests. In a piece for National Geographic’s “Voices” blog, I argue that there has never been more hope for those advocating on environmental issues, whether local or global.

http://on.natgeo.com/1IQHMqu

Is Eli the second coming of Tebow?

Lost in all of the hullabaloo about whether Eli Manning is an elite quarterback and all the gazillions of fourth quarter rallies he’s conducted is the ultimate question about his success. Has Eli ascended to the level of Tim Tebow?

It’s not such an outrageous question, given how everyone in New York wanted a new quarterback after Eli led the league in interceptions last year. Eli has certainly played as many stinker games as Tebow has, although Tebow to his credit has played all of his stinkers in one season.

But the real question lies in the fourth quarter heroics. Eli’s stats are very good for the most part, but he knows how to finish. Tebow’s stats stink, but he knows how to finish. How good do your stats have to be as long as you finish?

Maybe we should ask Tom Brady, Aaron Rogers, and Drew Brees for their opinions.

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One of the points made over and over again is how Eli, like other great quarterbacks, makes those around him better. Mario Manningham, who had the defining catch in this year’s Super Bowl, is the perfect example.

Towards the end of the third quarter, Manningham streaked up the line and Eli put the ball where only he could get it—which was slightly out of bounds. Manning was expecting Manningham to drag his feet and stay in bounds, but Manningham just ran under it and caught it out of bounds without even thinking about where his feet were.

Chris Collinsworth, the color commentator, blasted Manningham for running a bad route, one that brought him too close to the sideline. Collinsworth thought Manningham’s route forced Manning to put the ball out of bounds; the lack of effort by the receiver in staying in bounds was not discussed.

With such a nonchalant approach in the second half of the Super Bowl, do you think Manning lost confidence in his number three receiver?

Fast forward to the start of the game-winning drive, first and ten from the Giants’ 12, and what does Manning do? He comes out throwing a 38-yard strike, with Manningham running the exact same route but this time he dragged his feet perfectly. All of the sudden, the Giants were on the 50 yard line and it looked grim for the Patriots.

Does any other quarterback make the exact same throw to the same receiver with the same pattern after a terrible mental lapse in the championship game? It’s hard to say, as I don’t watch other teams as intently as I watch my Giants. But that sequence struck me as the reason why Eli is elite—he elevates the play of his teammates, never losing confidence in them even when they don’t deserve it.

– – – –

The last two points that I need to make is on how that drive ended. There’s a minute left in the game, it’s third and goal from the six, and it looks like the Giants are content to run the ball, burn the clock or force the Patriots to take their last timeout, and then kick a field goal.

The Patriots had the option of trying to stuff the run, calling their last time out, and then, assuming the Giants make the field goal, field the kick off with a minute remaining and needing to drive part of the way down field to kick a field goal. Tom Brady is an elite quarterback, one of the all-time greats. Piece of cake, right?

The other option would have been to stuff the run, not call the time out, and then field the kick off with about 20 seconds remaining and one time out. This was not feasible, and Bill Belichick was correct in not choosing this option.

But the option he chose was ridiculous. His defense conceded the game winning-touchdown with a minute remaining so that they could field the kick off and still have their timeout. Instead of forcing the Giants to kick a field goal, which is never automatic (just ask Scott Norwood), the hooded genius gave the Giants the game-winning touchdown.

With a minute to play, would you rather need to score a touchdown or a field goal? You would think a “hall of fame” coach would trust his “hall of fame” quarterback to lead a drive that brings the team within field goal range, even without timeouts.

Of course, you could lay the blame on Belichick’s assistants who were in charge of figuring out whether to challenge Manningham’s catch. Belichick challenged whether Manningham stayed in bounds, but right off the bat you could see that this was a bad move. To win a challenge, you need incontrovertible evidence that the wrong call was made. How can Belichick, the king of videotape, not have someone tivo-ing the game who can figure out quickly that this was not a challengeable catch? The blown challenge cost the Patriots time out, one they sorely needed at the end of the game.

Only one quarterback in Super Bowl history has taken his team the length of the field at the end of the Super Bowl when a touchdown was needed to win—and that quarterback was Eli Manning. Manning accomplished this feat four years ago, when he and the Giants spoiled the Patriots’ bid for a perfect season. Brady’s attempt came up short, again.

What does this say about both quarterbacks? Maybe we should ask Tebow.

On Fourth Down, Only Go For It If You’re Gonna Make It

It’s the second quarter, the Giants are down 2-0 (yes, that’s a baseball score in a football game, the first sign of trouble), and Big Blue has the ball in the red zone, fourth and inches.

“Kick the field goal,” I say.  “It’s a low scoring game, the Giants offense is nowhere, why squander the opportunity to score?”

“You have to go for it,” my friend Sean says.  “Show some faith in your offensive line.”

Tom Coughlin, Giants coach, didn’t hear either of our opinions, but he listened to Sean and went for it. Atlanta got good penetration, met Giants running back behind the line of scrimmage, but Jacobs spun free and forward and gained the first down.  Big Blue scored a touchdown shortly thereafter, and the team caught fire. Final score, 24-2.

Driving home after the game, the post-game chatter was all about the Falcons coach Mike Smith and what a turkey he was for going for it twice on fourth and inches from around the Giants 25. Smith was a turkey because his team failed to convert both times. Coughlin’s decision was lost amid the dominant play by his team after they converted; Smith’s decisions were highlighted as the reason his team lost.

Smith, apparently, is a big reader of all the analysis dedicated to whether to go for it or not.  It seams that almost every year the New York Times sports section comes up with an analysis on why you should always go for it. He went for it in the regular season, against the division rival Saints, and failed. He went for it twice in this game, ostensibly for the same reasons that Coughlin did–showing some faith in his team, providing the opportunity to spark some momentum, a naive belief that it would work?–but only one coach wears the dunce cap.

My own analysis, done without the benefit of a degree in statistics or eager graduate students at my disposal, is that you should go for it unless failing at it will hurt more than kicking the field goal or punting.  In today’s game, the Falcons had just marched down the field, failed the conversion, and forced QB Eli Manning to throw the ball away in the end zone, earning a safety for intentionally grounding the ball.  The Giants then forced an Atlanta punt, and finally moved the ball downfield–failing on the fourth down play would mean squandering the little momentum that had been built up be a long drive by coming away with zero points. “Kick the field goal,” I said.

In the end, Tom Coughlin is the genius that fired his team up, while Mike Smith is the coach that went down with his ship. Perhaps the right decision was made only because it worked.

But how would you factor that into a statistical analysis?