Gut Instinct

The wind has been blowing pretty hard here in Kansas, the Super Bowl is this weekend, and it was time to write about football again.

Wind in the third? Or wind in the fourth? Play the percentages, or go with your gut?

In the 7th game of our sixth grade season, our opponent won the opening toss and deferred the decision. We chose the ball and for some reason, they then chose to kick directly into the steady 20 mph wind.

We moved the ball well, but so did they. They got the only score of the half in the second quarter when the wind was in our face and we gave them a very short field. Despite the wind, we responded, but ran out of time while driving down the field. We’d gained 87 yards in the half, and they had 90. Our offensive yardage was evenly split between the two quarters. Their only big drive was mostly with the wind.

We were down by 8 and I knew they’d take the ball. But I was thinking quite a bit about the wind, and trying to decide whether to have it in the 3rd or 4th quarter. I believed that if they got up by two scores, we would be in trouble. I also believed that as well as we’d moved the ball in the first half, if we could score, we’d be in great shape to win the game.

Understand that passing was not that critical for either team. But sixth graders can be intimidated by a howling wind in their faces. Heck, sixth grade coaches don’t like going against the wind, even coaching run-based teams.

My gut said to use the wind and kick it as deeply as we could, win field position early and try to get that first score. My head should have said it too, but I worried that doing the conventional thing – pinning them deep with the wind in their faces – might actually be the wrong thing.

Our defensive coordinator was concerned about the speed and athleticism of their return guys, and our special teams coach wasn’t confident that we would kick it well if we asked our kicker to blast it. They both felt that we should kick the ball on the ground, and keep it away from their athletic return guys.

So I set aside my instinct and started using my head. I certainly didn’t want their return guys to get a clean catch off a deeper than normal kickoff, so a squib made sense to me. I also had a notion to on-side kick. We really didn’t want them to get the ball to start the second half, and often during the season had recovered unexpected on-side kicks.

Once I’d decided that the kick was going to be on the ground, it was a pretty easy decision to make it an on-side kick, rather than a deep squib. I felt like at most we might be giving up fifteen yards of field position if we didn’t recover.

Then my mind turned back to the wind direction. Since I was going to put the kick on the ground, I’d get no benefit of the wind for the kick.  And then I had the thought that betrayed me, and really turned me away from my gut instinct. I thought there was a better chance that we might get more plays on offense with the wind if we kicked off against the wind.

In other words, if we kicked on-side and they recovered (which they had about a 60% chance to do based on our success during the season) then they’d probably take three or four plays worth of clock-time on offense. If we kicked off with the wind and they recovered, that would be wind-favorable time for our offense that we would never be able to recover.

Finally, if we didn’t get the on-side kick, I had confidence that we could stop them four and out in the middle of the field and be in decent shape anyway.

So I went against my gut, and followed my reasoning. They chose ball, and we chose to kick into the wind.

We nearly recovered the kick – but not quite. Our defense played well for three snaps, and they had 4th & 5 on our 45 yard line. But they ran a sweep left for 17 yards when we missed a tackle. They tried the sweep twice more to set up the reverse that went 26 yards and put them two scores ahead.

Then THEY kicked it deep with the wind, we had a holding penalty on the kick return, and played in jail for the rest of the quarter. They ended up really getting a lot of momentum going in the second half and they beat us, despite the very even play in the first half.

That day I think my ‘gut’ was intuitively aware of one major thing that my head didn’t consider – our opponent was far more comfortable on offense with the wind at their backs. I’d watched the whole first half, seen them march down the field with the wind behind them, but just never put two and two together.  In the first half they had gained 20 yards in 8 plays against the wind, and 70 yards in 14 plays with the wind. They were twice as good with the wind as against it.

To be fair to myself, they tried only two passes in the first half, resulting in one sack and one incomplete pass. So the wind shouldn’t have been a factor. It didn’t seem to me to be a big factor for our offense. But I think psychologically, it was huge for their kids on offense.

Here are my new rules for second half wind choice.

  1. Is our opponent’s offense markedly better playing with the wind than against it? If Yes, take the wind in your favor and pin them back with a deep kick. If No, ask…
  2. Is our offense struggling against the wind, but much better with it? If Yes, kick to them against the wind.  They will chew up clock time while the wind is against you, maximizing your offensive opportunities with the wind at your back. If No, kick deep with the wind and try to win field position early.

My reasoning on question 2 is sound I think. My problem that day was that I didn’t ask question 1 at all, so I disregarded a significant factor in the game. And I only considered part of question 2 – while it is true that you can maximize clock time for your offense by kicking against the wind, you have to believe the wind is a favorable factor for your offense for that to be any part of the decision process. In our case that day we were moving the ball both against and with the wind.

I put the question of the opponent’s success against the wind as the first order question because you are going to be kicking the ball, and chances are good that they’ll get it, even if you kick on-side.

I like these rules so much that on a windy day I won’t defer any more if we win the opening toss. I will take the ball and have the wind choice in the second half, when I have more information about our opponent’s ability with and against the wind.

I always worry that playing to my gut instinct is a trap because I’m relying on some underlying feeling that may have nothing to do with what’s happening on that day. But sometimes the gut knows the forest while the head is lost in the trees. This was one of those times.

The problem is of course, that you don’t know that at the moment. But whether you follow your gut instinct or your intellect, I think it is useful to assess your decisions at the end of the day. Measure your success or failure, and then try to create a more efficient way of making those decisions.

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