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A Brief Clarification

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Assessing Rutgers' chances of another eleven-win season Wednesday, I employed the term "cheap points" to distinguish between the vast majority of scores, the "traditional" variety born of an offense driving down the field, and the many fewer earned by way of defense or special teams. I used the same term in looking at life on the margins in the ACC, where I also issued the important disclaimer, "Victory trumps logic, history and justice 100 percent of the time." Some devoted Knight message boarders, having not taken in that disclaimer, took issue with the concept of "cheap points," or as some members of Scarlet Nation might know it, "donkey dust."

If I was setting out to rank last year's Rutgers team, I would agree: separating points by origin after the fact has no value. A score ultimately is a score, a win is a win is a win. I'm very careful here to note that the six special teams and defensive touchdowns RU scored last year, and the offensive points set up by those units, are in fact "earned." You can't take them away, and in that sense, calling them "cheap" is a misnomer.

But the point is not to rank last year's Rutgers team, it's to predict this year's Rutgers team. And, frankly, the half dozen lightning-strike plays I include in the "cheap points" category are not predictable. One sarcastic poster asked if, using this logic, you could argue "'Did Florida play like a 7-5 team last year?" Well, yes, of course, you can. Against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, Florida did, in fact, play like a 7-5 team. Or worse. This is not relevant to its championship, but it is relevant to predicting how the same group of players is likely to perform in the future. In that sense, for prognosticative purposes, a win is not a win; the trees tell us so much more than the forest.

Of the hundreds and hundreds of snaps over the course of a season (in Rutgers' case, there were 1,553 last year from scrimmage, to be exact), defensive and special teams touchdowns in either direction represent roughly half of one percent of the total. They are anomalies, in other words, and though they're huge, influential, game-changing anomalies, attempting to incorporate them into a prediction is folly. Blocked punts, kick returns, fumbles, dropped passes and missed field goals are going to happen, they're going to happen on a weekly basis, but they tend to be so random, and tend to distribute so evenly over time (you get a big fumble recovery one week, miss a crucial kick the next), that it's impossible to guess their potential effects, and especially dangerous to consider their favor an integral part of a team's makeup. There's a reason they play such a key role in a feature called "On the Margins": if that half a percent of plays is an integral source of a team's success, that team is probably in a lot of trouble, because the odds of consistently coming out ahead based on timely turnovers or, I don't know, say, opponents jumping offsides on a blown field goal attempt at the most convenient possible moment, are way too long to account for in any realistic forecast.

"What can I say? I've always been a master of exploiting random and totally improbable second chances.
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The odds, in fact, are very much against any of the plays that fall into the "cheap points" category happening at any given time, much less overwhelmingly in favor of one team. Anomalies are inevitable, but by definition also unpredictable, however crucial they turn out to be, and this chaotic fact is of course one of the reasons football is such a fantastic sport. Predictions are fun, but however detailed, their accuracy is always at the whim of a drop, flop or whistle. Rutgers' success last year was great because it made no sense, historically.

As long as we're making them, though, we have to admit how rare those departures from previous sense are. Predictions have to be (well, should be) based on a team's identity down-to-down, on the trees, the 99 percent of plays that deliver enough information to back up a passable guess at the eventual makeup of the forest. Can they run? Did the front seven on defense hold up physically? Is that a sustainable improvement, or a departure from the norm that's likely to return? What happened against the best opponents on the schedule? Is the offense noticeably one-dimensional? What has the team typically looked like over the last two, three, five years? What does recruiting say about the overall talent level? These are the questions that decide the vast majority of games, and we can come up with good answers based on the averages of hundreds of plays over dozens of contests. Those answers change as the averages change, but the best bet is always on the average. In Rutgers' case, I think the Kinghts are going to be very good again because they've shown they can run consistently and rush the passer and Mike Teel demonstrated tangible improvement once a viable receiving threat (Kenny Britt) entered the lineup over the second half of the season. They're good, and shouldn't have to overcome down-to-down disadvantages by unlikely means.

Anyway, what was known as "cheap points" will heretofore become "swing points," per the suggestion of Peter Bean. But the principle remains: if you look at the averages and answer all of those questions based on those hundreds of snaps and your hopes are still riding on the intangible grit and occasional dumb luck of the other fifteen, you're probably in for one very long season.