Let’s talk about something important. Are you all here? Well, I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important. Put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers only. Do you think I’m messing with you? I am not messing with you. I’m here from downtown, and I’m here on a mission of mercy. You call yourself a football team? You certainly don’t. ‘Cause the good news is you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting tonight. Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. ‘Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s contest. As you all know, first prize is the Super Bowl. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a framed team photo. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now?
A-B-C. A-always, B-be, C-closing. Always be closing. Always be closing. A-I-D-A. Attention, interest, decision, action. Attention; do I have your attention? Interest; are you interested? I know you are because it’s f*ck or walk. You close or you hit the bricks.
- Glengarry Glen Ross, lightly edited for relevance and profanity.
The big knock against the Seattle Seahawks this year is that they’re a dumpster fire that has somehow hydroplaned into the playoffs on a thick layer of one-score games that happened to go their way. An unpleasant graphic circulated not long ago by reddit user u/Comme-Des-Filles observed that if the results of all one-score games in the league were reversed, as of Week 16 the Seahawks would be picking first overall in the 2020 draft.
Surely it can’t be that bad, though. Such an outcome is so absurd to all but the most cynical among us that maybe it’s time to take another look at what really makes a game close - and a win lucky. The final score is a useful rule of thumb, no doubt, but we’re all aware of the desperate (and sometimes cowardly) choices that can distort a score to make the outcome seem much worse, or much closer, than perhaps it really was. We’re also aware that a 10-point deficit against the Jets is not the same manner of beast as a 10-point deficit against the Saints.
Fortunately for us, ESPN publishes charts of the changing win probability over the course of every NFL game - a jittery, volatile line that looks like the annual performance of that junior mining stock my uncle keeps trying to convince me to buy.
Pictured: Goldenjoy Mountain Ventures Holdco Ltd., a week after my large share purchase.
Explained broadly, ESPN win probability starts at kickoff with the betting line, and then adjusts throughout the game to incorporate the likelihood of ultimate victory based on the score, time, down, and distance of all similar situations in ESPN’s archive of NFL games played.
Peruse a few of these charts, and you’ll notice that some of them are quite bland: Team A puts Team B in a headlock and never lets go. The outcome is never in doubt. Other charts look like Tesla stock during an Elon Musk press conference/podcast appearance/tweet storm/morning jog. Most curiously, some games that end in reasonably close scores have win probability charts that are as smooth as a bunny slope.
Take the Baltimore Ravens’ 23-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on October 13. The Ravens started with a 68% win probability and then spent the next three hours quietly choking the life out of their hapless division rivals. The closest Cincinnati ever came to a comeback was halfway through the third quarter, when down 17-14, Andy Dalton completed a six-yard pass on first down to bring the Bengals to the 50-yard line and their win probability to...19%. Two incomplete passes later, Cincinnati punted.
Now I present to you Version 0.1 of the Closing Index, a seasonal snapshot of how easily a team closed out its opposition. The rules are simple: the sooner you dunk the other team beneath a 50% win probability and hold them there until the bubbles stop, the more the Closing Index rewards you, and it scales exponentially. Lucky wins or losses decided in the final minutes are worth virtually nothing, and nobody cares how much you lost by - only if you were in the game at the bitter end.
To get the bread rising, I’ve charted out the season for both Seattle and for the current gold standard of football excellence, the Baltimore Ravens. You’ll notice the most substantial difference is in the number of contests where the Ravens sent the opposing fans moseying back to the parking lot at the half. By a complete coincidence, it’s this distinction that the Closing Index emphasizes with its exponential point scheme.
For those curious, Seattle’s chart breaks down as follows:
Now, you may be asking yourself, why not just refer to DVOA, the analytics project painstakingly prepared by Football Outsiders that addresses team quality on a much more granular, contextual level than the Closing Index? I’ll tell you why: because DVOA has consistently ranked the 2019 Seattle Seahawks as one of the best teams in football - sixth in the league going into the Week 16 Cardinals game and eighth coming out - but nobody seems to believe it.
Faced with a choice between convincing you all that DVOA is correct and the Seahawks are a top 10 football team, or inventing a new, less accurate analytical model that more closely reflects your collective mood, I am debuting the Closing Index.
This is a significant upgrade in nuance over my last analytics project, RANGZ, which ranked quarterbacks by multiplying the number of Super Bowls they’d personally won by the number their franchise has won, and I expect all of you to be duly appreciative. Let’s hear it in the comments.