“Nice guys? I don’t give a care. Team players? Go home and play with your kids. You wanna get ranked? Close! You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you choke artists? You can’t take this, how can you take the abuse you get from Pro Football Focus? You don’t like it, leave.”
- Glengarry Glen Ross paraphrased for relevance and profanity; also probably the Closing Index if it ever achieves the power of speech.
What I’ve learned about ESPN’s win probability since I wrote my first column about it is that it isn’t very diplomatic, and we’re not used to that. Unlike the NFL, it doesn’t tell us the sort of white lies that form the foundation of a successful relationship. You see, the NFL lies to us all time. Some of those lies are really ugly. But others, as much as we might roll our eyes, are in their own unassuming way part of the glue holding together the fan experience.
We like excitement, which means we like games that come down to the wire, which means that NFL announcers who declare at halftime that a game is effectively over get sent to re-education camps. This omertà, combined with the often irrational emotions through which fans filter their experience, can create very misleading perspectives about just how much of a fight is left to be had in any given contest.
Consider the Seattle Seahawks’ game against the Carolina Panthers. With the two-minute warning looming and Carolina leaning off its broom to try to catch the comeback snitch, D.J. Fluker committed a holding penalty to set up 3rd and 11 in the wrong half of the field. If Seattle didn't convert it was going to punt, and Carolina was going to have the opportunity to drive the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown.
This, of course, caused jubilation amongst Panther fans and the rending of garments among Seahawks fans. It was so easy to imagine Malik Turner dropping a 15-yard pass and Christian McCaffrey breaking off a Pro Bowl run that would leave Seahawks defenders eating his dust. That’s what goes through a fan’s mind. Even a coldly rational computation might have convinced you that the game was now up for grabs: it’s not a terribly unusual event for any given NFL team to deny a 3rd and 11 and then drive down the field for a touchdown.
But ESPN’s win probability isn’t a fan, and it isn’t purely a statistician, either: it’s a bookie at heart. What ESPN’s win probability (henceforth “EWP”) sees is that the quarterback responsible for securing a first down on 3rd and 11 is Russell Wilson, just named to Pro Football Focus’s first-team All-Pro roster for 2019, and that the defense attempting to stop him from getting what he wants belongs to the Carolina Panthers, who are not good, and sure enough have already given up 30 points. EWP also knows that even if Wilson falls short, the quarterback responsible for driving the length of the field for a touchdown (a field goal won’t do) is...Kyle Allen.
Needless to say, EWP is unimpressed with the cliffhanger the announcers are going nuts about. It figures the odds of Wilson blowing it and Allen subsequently driving for a touchdown are about 16%. It is happy to take the money of exhilarated Panthers bettors and hyperventilating Seahawks bettors alike. It is totally unsurprised when Wilson completes a pass to Tyler Lockett for 14 yards to ice the game.
Likewise, EWP isn't fazed by small, early leads posted by junk-bucket squads. Here’s the EWP chart for Miami’s recent miracle win against the heavily favored New England Patriots.
Even when the Dolphins roared out to a 10-0 lead, EWP stayed frosty - which you will admit makes a great deal of sense. A 10-point buffer halfway through the second quarter against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady provides about as much reassurance as a “duck and cover” nuclear safety drill. We all know that bizarre things happen to even the best teams at the beginning of football games, and that the consistent application of superior skill eventually (usually) smooths it all out - EWP knows that, too.
When New England ties it up four minutes later, EWP just nods. What really caused EWP to prick up its ears was big bad New England’s subsequent inability to create any separation, and Miami taking advantage of that reprieve by making it 17-10 halfway through the third quarter.
You don’t climb the Closing Index by being a cruddy franchise making plucky but doomed efforts against clearly superior opponents. You climb the Closing Index by tackling the kick returner into the Gatorade stand on the opening play and not relenting until their quarterback flinches every time your defensive line jogs past him.
As a result, the Closing Index is going to punish teams with tough schedules and reward teams with weak schedules. There’s no way around it, it’s baked into the premise of EWP, which deliberately adores bullies creaming weaklings and sneers at close efforts against superior teams. But but but, it’s going to do something very satisfying in return: reward what a team actually accomplished with the materials it had at hand, not speculate on what that team might have done in a more forgiving alternate reality.
The Closing Index is...well...for closers. Not teams that complain about their schedules. Life’s rough all over, pal. You gonna complain that the league handed you the Vikings and the Eagles back to back, or are you gonna put them away? The Closing Index is a trophy case, not a sales pitch.
Here’s what I do notice, though, the ghost in the machine that does trouble me: divisional games. For one thing, they’re the biggest immediately apparent source of lopsided strength of schedule. Would you rather have six games against the Niners, Rams, and Cards, or six games against the Bucs, Falcons, and Panthers? That’s a rhetorical question, put your hand down.
For another thing, they’re an extremely obvious source of upsets. Charting schedule after schedule, the weirdest outcomes were almost always from bad teams playing their divisional heavyweights like it was the Super Bowl. And we’re familiar with this effect as Seahawks fans, aren’t we? For years, the good-for-nothing St. Louis Rams seemed to get out of bed for two games a year - the ones against Seattle. So I can be convinced to remove divisional games from consideration completely, but not today. I’ll tuck the idea away for future debate.
In the meantime, let’s give you all the treasure promised to brave adventurers in the headline: the numbers for the rest of the NFC playoff contenders.
The eye is immediately drawn to the relatively low score the Closing Index gives the San Francisco 49ers compared to where the accepted wisdom puts them, which is (fans will tell you with a scoff) comfortably ahead of the Minnesota Vikings. And I thought the same thing, until I made these charts. Now I’m beginning to wonder. Just a sliver of doubt.
Let’s start with this: Football Outsiders, the industry leader in using numbers to tell us things about sports, sees a small but significant gap between the Niners and the Vikes in its final DVOA rankings. Interpreting the table above, San Francisco is portrayed by DVOA as one of five “Tier 1” teams and Minnesota is one of three Tier 2 teams (the Titans, Packers, Eagles, and Rams form Tier 3, in that order), but it’s pretty obvious why the Closing Index doesn’t like San Fran: for such a supposedly great team, San Fran sure had a lot of really tight games.
And I mean a lot. According to EWP, literally half of the Niners’ season was decided in the fourth quarter of their games. They needed to come back in the last two minutes to beat the Steelers and the Cardinals, survived a Seahawks rally by a literal inch, had to complete a 3rd and 16 throw to avoid handing the Rams the ball with 90 seconds left in a tied game, and allowed the 5-9 Falcons to come back (and ultimately triumph) in the final moments of what should have been a dominant home win, leading to a 159% shift in win probability from 88% San Francisco to 71% Atlanta in less than two minutes.
Unlike the Ravens and the Saints, this is not a team that eliminates all hope at the opening bell. The Niners let lesser teams hang around, and the Closing Index (which I have begun to picture as Alec Baldwin) hates that.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see why the chattering classes, myself included, may have been overlooking the Minnesota Vikings: they’re the bizarro Seahawks. Each franchise had five games decided in the fourth quarter. Seattle won four of those games, and Minnesota won only two. The Closing Index doesn’t care about any of this because only chumps are still trying to close the deal in the fourth quarter, but commonly used metrics like oh, I don’t know, “season record” are influenced by such things quite a bit. If not for the following pieces of bad fortune, the Vikings would probably be 13-3 and talking about them in the same breath as the 49ers wouldn’t sound so silly:
- Mitch Trubisky making a 32-yard throw on a 4th and 9.
- The Vikings failing to recover either of the strip sacks they inflicted on the Chiefs with less than five minutes left in the game.
- Kirk Cousins being intercepted on the Packers’ 8 yard line with five minutes left in the game.
So what does version 0.1 of the Closing Index predict for the NFC playoffs? This Wild Card weekend, I expect the Hawks to beat the Eagles and the Saints to beat the Vikings, who might nonetheless prove tougher customers than most expect.
In the divisional round, I (regrettably) expect the Niners to beat the Seahawks, although the kryptonite brass knuckles gifted to the Seahawks as the NFC West underdogs makes this the least-predictable matchup. DVOA and the Closing Index both agree the Saints will beat the Packers, but disagree on whether to anticipate a lively contest (Closing Index) or a schooling (DVOA).
If it is in fact the Saints and the Niners in the NFC Championship, as many foresee, it’ll be the Saints in the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens.