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On Football: Dumb Coach, Smart Players

This is a policy blog, yes, but I’m a football fan, too. So before I say anything more about health care reform, taxes, or the presidential campaign, allow me a few random observations about some recent news.

Football coaches can be stupid. If you saw the Fiesta Bowl, or if you are a Stanford fan, then you may still be shaking your head at how Coach David Shaw managed the end of regulation. For those who missed it, here's the situation he faced...

Fifty seconds to go, tie game at 38. First and ten for Stanford, ball at the Oklahoma State 17-yard line. Quarterback Andrew Luck has just put together a textbook no-huddle drive, completing five of five passes. Stanford has all three timeouts and its kicker, freshman Jordan Williamson, missed an earlier attempt from a distance within his range.

So what does Shaw do? He drains the clock with a pair of runs and sends the field goal team onto the field. Williamson misses, sending the game to overtime. After another Williamson miss, this from longer distance, Oklahoma State wins with an easy touchdown.

Luck may be the best college passer in a generation, but Shaw entrusts the team’s fate to a freshman kicker, who, by the way, was injured earlier in the season. Mystifying.

Football players can be smart. In Division 1 college football, plenty of schools and plenty of players don't take academics very seriously. But the two brightest stars on the field this year seem to be an exception.

Luck carried a 3.45 average at Stanford, studying architecture, and passed up huge money last year to finish his studies. The Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Robert Griffin III of Baylor, maintained a 3.76, finished his political science degree in three years, and is expected to graduate with a masters. Both are Academic All-Americans.

I don’t imagine either will accomplish as much off the football field as he will on it, but it’s nice to see student-athletes who take the student part seriously.

Sometimes the game changes. Congratulations to Drew Brees and Tom Brady, each of whom broke Dan Marino’s single-season record for passing yards, with particular kudos to Brees, who set a new record with 5,476. That easily eclipses the 5,084 Marino threw in 1984. But are the records really comparable?

The game has changed a lot in a quarter-century: Most conspicuously, the NFL changed pass interference rules. When Marino played (and when, growing up in South Florida, I saw him play) defenders had much more leeway to initiate contact with receivers.

Those rules aren’t the only reason passing is easier today: Receivers have gotten bigger and more college quarterbacks play in pass-heavy systems that prepare them for the pro game. But the results are undeniable: This year alone, three quarterbacks passed for more than 5,000 yards, a mark nobody had reached until Marino did it. According to Nate Silver, if you adjust for the higher passing yardage in today’s game, Marino’s 5,084 translates to 5650 today, which would be more than Brees did.

This shouldn't take anything away from Brees or in particular from Brady, whose overall record not just passing but also winning in the clutch is simply phenomenal. (Take it from me: Brady masterpieces have frequently come at my team's expense.) But declaring that Brees or Brady outperformed Marino is no more fair than saying that Marino outperformed Johnny Unitas. The game changes too much over time to make such distinctions.

Sometimes timing stinks: The Iowa caucus is taking place just two days after New Year’s. Forget the impact on the presidential race. What about the impact on journalists like me who root for the Michigan Wolverines, set to play in tonight’s Sugar Bowl? Seriously, this is a problem.

Update: I softened my language on academics just a bit. Plenty of students and schools still take academics seriously.