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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How "boneheaded" was Reggie Bush's muffed lateral?

Despite having a statistically great game -- 82 yards rushing on just 13 carries and 95 yards receiving -- Reggie Bush has been panned for his "poor" performance in the Rose Bowl. This is probably largely because of his "disastrous" lateral attempt at the end of a very nice reception in the first half. To hear it from sports commentators, you would think this play was the stupidest thing since Jim Marshall rumbled 66 yards for a safety -- and it could even hurt his standing as the #1 pick in the draft! But how bad was it really?

Reggie was being tackled around the 20 yard line when he sees Brad Walker running along beside him with daylight to the endzone. To figure out the "boneheadedness" of his play, we need simply to aggregate the costs and benefits of the possible outcomes, and compare that figure to what he gave up to make the play -- that is, a first down on the 18. Now, as I see it, there were 3 possible outcomes: 1) Walker catches the ball, in which case he is in for a touchdown. Value: ~(7). 2) Walker fumbles and USC recovers. Value: same as the value of going down. 3) Walker fumbles and Texas recovers. Some percentage of the time, Texas may return the fumble, but overall they are likely to only get average field position. Therefore, value: ~(0).

Now, let's do some Case Interview-style estimations. While USC has a deadly good offense and would eventually run all over Texas, this was not apparent at this point in the game, when USC led only 7-0 early in the 2nd. However, I'll stick with some high-powered numbers and say that they score a touchdown in that spot about half the time, and a field goal half of the remainder.

Thus the value of going down would be about .5(7) + .25(3), or about 4.25.

Now, based on the small sample of this game, in which 1 of 2 lateral attempts succeeded, let's say the chances of Walker catching the ball are 50%. Since there were roughly twice as many Texas players in the area, let's say the chances of Texas recovering a fumble were about twice as good as USC's.

Thus the value of the lateral would be about .5(7) + .33(0) + .166(4.25), or ~4.2.

Therefore the total boneheadedness of the play would be about .05 points. As a rough statistical rule, every 100 yards in football is worth about 10 points. Thus, by comparison, if Bush made this same mistake 10 times in one game, it would add up to about the "boneheadedness" of a single false-start penalty.

Of course, I might be underestimating the USC offense (even from Bush's perspective), so let's presume an unworldly 6 points per posession in that spot: the value of the gaffe would still only be -1.5 points, or on par with a 15 yard unnecessary roughness penalty. Incidentally, the same "mistake" in the NFL, where red-zone offenses are much worse, has a very strong chance of being net positive. Perhaps we should put Reggie's crucifiction on hold for a bit.

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