My Thoughts on this Year’s Super Bowl

Let me ask you, who are you gonna believe, Tom Brady, the greatest man in all of humanity, or a bunch of a**h**** on Twitter?

First, I do not have a dog in this hunt, though Sharon* does, being a die hard Pats fan since before Tom Brady.

I am watching for the ads.

Remember that article by Warren Sharp in Slate that said that the Patriots fumble numbers were mathematically impossible?

Yeah, not so much:

The data science community responded with a number of rebuttals (I put together a roundup of my favorite ones below). Collectively, these posts did a great job of breaking down the Statistics 101 problems with Sharp’s original analyses. But even if Sharp had been less sloppy, it would have been right to take issue with the larger implication of his work — that any major outlier, if shown to be statistically significant, should be seen as evidence of rule-breaking.

Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong were outliers. But so is Lionel Messi. And Phil Jackson. And the San Antonio Spurs. It would be irresponsible — and depressing — to assume every incredible performance equals cheating. Celebrating outliers is one of the best parts about being a sports fan.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that, in cases such as these, our traditional methods of determining statistical significance can severely underestimate the odds of something happening due to chance. That’s because of the so-called Wyatt Earp Effect, named after the frontier lawman known for taking part in lots of gunfights without getting hurt. Earp’s feat seems improbable in hindsight, but given the sheer number of shootouts in the Old West, it was actually pretty likely that somebody would make it out alive.

Likewise, it’s difficult to estimate the true odds against a team preventing fumbles to the extent Sharp originally suggested New England did. Knowing particulars about the Patriots after the fact can bias us into computing the odds that a specific team would have a specific fumble record over a specific period of years. But the real question regarding New England’s outlier-ness should surround the odds that any team would post any outlier statistic over any span of seasons. And the probability of that happening, as you may imagine, is a lot higher than the odds of a very specific set of circumstances.

Here were some of the responses to Sharp’s posts:


  • The harshest counterargument belonged to data scientist Drew Fustin. Fustin challenged Sharp’s choice to exclude dome teams (Sharp’s own post says outdoor teams barely fumble more often than those based in domes), instead looking at fumble rates across all teams in outdoor games only — whereupon the Patriots don’t even rank first in the NFL at fumble avoidance over the 2010-2014 period. He also questions whether Sharp’s decision to use that 2010-14 period was a case of cherry-picking the timeframe that would make the Patriots look most like an extreme outlier.

(emphasis mine)

Seriously, it’s a tempest in a teapot, and distracting all of us from the true meaning of the Super Bowl:  To sell us useless sh%$ that we really do not need and to pump up the profile of advertising firms.

*Love of my life, light of the cosmos, she who must be obeyed, my wife.

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