AP Hockey Story of the Day: March 4 – On the Chicago Cubs, Kris Bryant and the Human Element

I’ve written about the Cubs and their growing use of analytics before at this blog, and while I thought I had, it turns out I haven’t explicitly written about the Houston Astros and their extreme uses of analytics – in essence, treating their players as exclusively products and maximizing assets without regard for morale and the slippery slope that can result from that – but others have, so I would direct you here and here if you’re not sure what this paragraph is in reference to.

Anyway, Grantland had a nice piece recently on the Chicago Cubs and the decision they will have to face with regards to their top prospect Kris Bryant. They will need to decide whether a deserving player makes the major league roster right away, or is returned to the minors so that the team can gain a year of contract control down the line. It’s an issue that in hockey hasn’t been too much at the forefront since teams will generally appease their players at the expense of cost control, and sometimes that’s fine. I mentioned briefly in this piece how if I’m the team drafting Connor McDavid he’s on my roster next year, no matter the cost down the line. It’s not worth the black eye it would cause the organization and the potential for McDavid to get upset at management just for a few million dollars of savings for one year in the future.

It’s a nuanced issue because there are borderline situations where it is defensible and even optimal to keep a player in juniors for this reason. But, as the Astros have found out, it can be important to incorporate the human element into any risk/reward and opportunity cost calculations. So if I’m the Cubs, I would think long and hard before making the decision regarding Kris Bryant this March.

Myth of Net Neutrality Would Limit Internet’s Potential

With Net Neutrality the hot topic today, in particular this article in the New York Times, I thought I’d post an op-ed I wrote about the topic for a Media Law class last semester. I can’t say I’ve stayed up to date on how the issue has evolved since the time this was written (November), so if anybody has new information they’d like to contribute, feel free to post in the comments. Here it is:

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We’ve all seen it; we’ve all been captivated by it; we’ve allowed ourselves not to question it because it’s the American journalistic dream: take boring old news and make it interesting to the average consumer. John Oliver, television’s newest comedy anchor, has been great for American awareness. Unlike his contemporaries, Oliver has managed to not only entertain, but also to incite protest. The foremost example has been Oliver’s rant on Net Neutrality, in which he compelled Internet commenters to send complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, urging it to reconsider legislation that would, according to Oliver, fix a problem that doesn’t exist. And comment they did, as the FCC’s website crashed as a result of a wave of traffic the very next day.

But there was a massive oversight on the part of Oliver and his staff that critically skewed the issue and that led many — including myself, initially — to come to the wrong conclusion regarding the importance of Net Neutrality, and the necessary course of action. The focus needs to be on the market conditions surrounding Internet Service Providers and creating new incentive structures and regulations to optimize use of the internet rather than on preserving an outdated and inconvenient ideal.

Let’s start back in 2009. By then, the myth of web traffic being evenly distributed over thousands of different content providers had become just that. That year, half of all internet traffic stemmed from less than 150 large content providers, and the internet simply couldn’t function in the way it long had; it could no longer be neutral. Large providers like Google, Facebook, and Netflix began making special arrangements with ISPs to bypass the back-and-forth communications that tend to slow down Internet accessibility. In simple terms, they developed their own fast lanes. And that was it. The idea of Net Neutrality that Oliver preached so vehemently for commenters to preserve hasn’t been a reality in half a decade. Nor could it be. Today, those 150 companies providing half the content have shrunk to 30. Without a fast lane, a Netflix or an HBO would never work. There simply isn’t enough bandwidth if big content providers are forced to share with everybody else. The average start-up doesn’t have access to this fast lane, but for the most part the average start-up doesn’t need it. How do I know? Well, start-ups seem to be doing fine for themselves right now, and did anyone — did John Oliver, or any of his viewers — even know that the status quo was so different from what it was five years ago?

There is a serious issue to confront here — because the concern becomes one of escalating power and incentives for ISPs and content providers — but it isn’t about Net Neutrality at all, because Net Neutrality is neither alive nor optimal. The question is how to adjust the system such that those companies we’re all supposed to hate so much — Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, etc. — are forced to invest in increasing broadband, and are prevented from using the ability to prioritize certain content to their advantage, at the expense of consumers. “We should be asking ourselves how do we create abundance, not how do we manage and allocate scarcity,” says Blair Levin, a former FCC chief of staff. As Oliver points out in his rant, America is currently 31st in the world in download speeds, behind even Estonia, a country that Oliver characterizes as looking like they “still worry about Shrek attacks.”

But before once again painting ISPs as the bad guys with regard to this issue, consider that this is a capitalist country, and for-profit corporations like Comcast are around to make money — and more importantly, to maximize profits for shareholders. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts gets judged upon how much money he makes his company, not whether or not his customers are happy — note that those two ideas aren’t correlated in monopolies, which is one of the big problems with the current environment.

Consider the situation for Verizon, who recently invested $26 billion to provide its Fios service to 20 American cities. Only approximately 40 percent of eligible households signed up for the service, which led to a $1,350 investment from the company in each customer, something that will take years to earn back and is hardly worth it for the provider in an industry in which customers have few other cable and internet options to begin with. The situation certainly wouldn’t be any more favorable if such monopolies were forcibly dissolved; if anything, the incentives for companies like Verizon to invest in better technologies would be even fewer and farther between.

So what is the solution to this mess? It certainly doesn’t involve clinging to the “ideal” of net neutrality, which is neither the current reality nor optimal. ISPs need to be regulated ferociously, but maintaining monopolies may in fact save everybody money. The FCC needs to enact legislation that creates bidding between companies for monopolistic power in each area, with strict conditions for each winning ISP that involve heavy investment in new technologies, limits on the differences between fast and slow lanes, and price maximums for consumers. Will it be easy? No. Nothing in American politics seems to ever be so. Hopefully corporations will see this as a compromise to avoid the limits of full “net neutrality.” But this is necessary so that consumers can continue to use the Internet to its potential, and so that such potential can be expanded evermore.

Oliver was right about one thing: the system isn’t currently broken. But it is likely to run off track if we don’t take extreme action now to change the incentive structure for ISPs, who are monopolies just looking to maximize profits. Maybe a new rant is in order, John, and your “pretties” need to be made to fly once again — this time armed with the whole story.

The Deleted Section From My NHL.com Long Read

On Sunday, the NHL’s website published my long read on the place of analytics in hockey and why they are so critical. As you know if you read it, it contained a lot of material, and good for you if you managed to understand it all. It was the product of months of revising and editing, and in the end a complete section needed to be cut. I made the decision to cut that section – which focussed on evaluating defense – in order to add substance to the other sections, and because I didn’t think it entirely fit. Here is that section:

EVALUATING DEFENSE WITH ANALYTICS

Evaluating defense is an area in which analytical findings have helped to shape perception. Conventional analysis dictates that the best players at preventing goals do so through proper positioning, good stick-work, blocking shots and hitting the opposition. Those things can be important when the other team has the puck, of course, but they don’t paint a full picture of a player’s effectiveness at preventing goals.

Phoenix Coyotes Coach Dave Tippett once discussed a particular issue he was having in analyzing his defensemen, while he was coaching in juniors.

“We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.

 Then, we had another guy who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman.”

Tippett was ahead of his time in thinking about defending in a completely different way. A player that has the puck is contributing both on offense and defense at the same time. So a player can be below average without the puck in his own end, but still wind up better at preventing goals than a traditional defensive defenseman.

“Defense is the sum of actions that reduce the number of shot attempts your team surrenders over the course of a game,” explained Stephen Burtch of Sportsnet.ca.

“This can take numerous forms (breakouts, cycling, pinching) that involve a player’s team being in possession, and that may or may not translate to offense. But they definitely translate to fewer chances for the opposition which arguably makes them defensive skills and not offensive.”

The ability to keep the puck out of the defensive zone becomes especially critical when considering the role of randomness. When a player spends time in his own end, he opens up the possibility of a seeing-eye shot, or a deflection, or a fluky bounce, or just a perfect placement, resulting in a goal against. No matter how good that player — or even an entire team — might be at defending, over large samples the opposition will find holes, take advantage of lapses, and inevitably win games. Watching a player block shots and seal off passing lanes may mislead a viewer to presume that said player is having a positive effect. But playing in the defensive zone means putting yourself at the mercy of randomness. The saying that “the best players make their own luck” is true because the best players spend as little time as possible in their defensive zone, limiting shots against and thus the potential for pucks to find their way into the net.

Basing defensive evaluations mostly on defensive zone play is a flawed practice, as has been demonstrated through an analysis of years of data. Traditions die hard, however, and beliefs that conflicts with what parents, coaches, and television personalities have taught us about the sport for decades are generally dismissed.

 

AP Hockey Story of the Day: February 15 – Appreciating a Great Blog

Stefan Wolejszo over the past year has written at a compelling blog called “Integrating Hockey Analysis”. With a background in analyzing both qualitative and quantitative variables, and research and expertise in sociology, Stefan made some very intriguing points on how to avoid the heated analyst/purist debate that has permeated the blogosphere and Twitter over the past few years. He has also done a great job of describing ways in which a team could incorporate analysis of latent variables (often referred to as intangibles) into evaluation of players and teams.

Stefan recently concluded the blog with this great summary piece, and it’s definitely worth reading that, and if you have interest, going back through his archives as I have. While it may not have gotten the most widespread attention, these posts contain some absolutely critical bits of insight. Check them out.

AP Hockey Story of the Day: February 14 – On Organizational Structure, Tough Decisions, and the Southampton Way

Jacob Steinberg had a great piece in the Guardian on how top soccer teams approach managerial hirings. Lifespans for coaches these days in any sport are short, so it’s always worth having contingency plans, and finding ways to promote continuity even amongst change. Steinberg highlights the case of Southampton, where the club fired Nigel Adkins in mid-season following consecutive years of promotion and a gutsy come-from-behind draw against Chelsea. There was an uproar, but the team’s executives recognized a situation where a coach had done great things, but had brought them just about as far as he could, and where a different voice was needed to take them to the next level: enter Mauricio Pochettino. After an impressive eighth place finish, the Argentine left for Tottenham, and Southampton was prepared for that as well, with a profile in mind for the type of manager it knew it needed. Now, the low-budget Reds sit in fourth place in the top soccer league in the world; crazy things happen in european football.

The word “culture” gets thrown around a lot in hockey. It is ascribed as both a cause of defeat and a symptom of it, and is prescribed all too often as a remedy to poor on-ice performance. It has become an eye-roller in the analytics community, alongside such terms as “grit”, “leadership”,”toughness” and many more. But as with most misguided concepts, the root of it is legitimate. Over 100 of so years of NHL hockey, concepts can be twisted and manipulated such that they no longer represent the underlying truths of hockey in the 21st century, as we see with tactics like the dump and chase, and roles like the enforcer, but rarely do you see something so absurd that it contains no element of contemporary or prior relevance. The dump and chase was a necessity during the world wars, when replacement players didn’t possess the skillsets to work around stout defenders. Fighting was a necessary evil to increase ticket sales when the league was on the brink of bankruptcy, and at a time when the league did a terrible job of policing its players, it served that need as well.

Culture, too, is a concept that stems from a necessity to have players working together, moving the boat in the right direction, so to speak. When one sees that shot metrics are 50-60% repeatable, some of the variance there is certainly the result of teams and coaches being able to harness their talents properly, finding good chemistry and camaraderie along the way.

But returning to the crux of this post, and the article mentioned above, culture may be most important not amongst the players, but up the chain of command. A team’s owner, general manager, and coaching staff need to have a unified idea of how to best achieve the organization’s goals, generally to win a championship. So often, it seems that the manager is able to think long-term, with more job security, while the coach is forced to make decisions based on the here and now. But that discrepancy makes so little sense to me. Obviously, a losing streak puts pressure on the general manager to make a coaching change, but making decisions based on pressure from fans and media is a terrible approach anyway. A coach shouldn’t be worried about immediate job security because a GM shouldn’t be worried about short term results.

An owner, general manager, and coach should always be on the same page in the way in which they intend to build a team, the way in which they pledge to analyze players and decisions, and they should both understand that the GM will not fire the coach based on a losing streak. If the goal is a Stanley Cup, the coach will be evaluated on setting the team up for success in the long run, and therefore there should be no competing incentives here. The coach shouldn’t sit out young players for extended periods; the coach should play guys he will need in order to win in the playoffs; the coach should be familiar enough with analytics to understand that winning and losing individual games, and scoring goals in short series of games, is not a professional way to analyze a team’s potential to win the Stanley Cup as is.

Owners should be looking for GMs who are able to instill a consistent culture, and GMs should be looking at coaches who can do the same. There shouldn’t be an inherent fear of firing coaches who win, if they aren’t maximizing the talent available, and the signs don’t point to an ability to take the team to the next level. When owners, GMs, and coaches are all on the same page, evaluating analytically, driving the bus towards the same goal, then they’re raising the team’s ceiling, and success will usually follow.

What’s Up With the Minnesota Wild?

Analysts love to credit the Chicago Blackhawks for using analytics to survive the hardship of remaining competitive in a salary cap world. Purists prefer to blame analytics for the failures of the Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Somewhere in the middle there is the Minnesota Wild, a team that willingly acknowledged its efforts to change from a trapping, dump-and-chase behemoth to a speedy carry-in assault, building on the principles of Eric Tulsky and others, who found that controlled entries on average lead to twice as many shot attempts as purposeful dump-ins.

The Wild are a curious case because last year, they started out as an analytic darling, with some of the best possession numbers in the league. But then some of the team’s core players got hurt, and in order to survive with a roster filled with replacements, the aggressiveness had to be abandoned – or at least put to one side – and the possession numbers, unsurprisingly, tumbled.

This year, something similar happened. The Wild started out with great numbers, leading everybody to believe they were the top team that looked so impressive in challenging the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs last year, but poor goaltending led to some bad results, and as a results things started to get off track. Without more micro-analysis, in the form of zone entry tracking, for example, it’s hard to know what exactly changed. Did the Wild revert to dumping the puck in more frequently? Did they collapse farther in the defensive zone to prevent high-percentage opportunities, thanks to a distrust in their goaltenders? One factor that we do know has not played a part this time around is the injury list, as you can see from this impressive visualization courtesy of Springing Malik.

Minnesota

It’s hard to make claims like “the bad goaltending created a distrust that led to a tilting of the ice in the wrong direction” just because a team struggles in the second half of two seasons. But maybe that claim has some validity. On January 15, the Wild acquired Devan Dubnyk from the Phoenix Coyotes, and the former Edmonton Oiler and Team Canada World Junior backup has been sensational, posting a .948 save percentage with four shutouts in nine games (going into a February 9th contest). If you split the Wild’s shot attempt numbers into three segments of the season, October 1-December 1 (ended by a three game stretch in which the team allowed 11 goals), December 1 to January 15 (the first game following the Dubnyk trade), and January 15 to February 8, the results are striking.

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Obviously correlation does not equal causation, and the third sample is still small, but there might be something to the thought that poor goaltending damaged the team’s ability to effectively carry out its progressive strategy, and that the team’s psyche was damaged leading to poor play as a result of distrust. It’s not conclusive, but it’s certainly worthy of further analysis.

AP Hockey Story of the Day: February 2 – The Blackhawks Need to Get Creative

Jonathan Willis has a great piece at Bleacher Report today about the Chicago Blackhawks and the tough situation in which they find themselves following long extensions to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, a number of other wealthy contracts, and the fact that the salary cap is unlikely to rise as much as originally hoped. This type of situation is, of course, the result of success, as GM Stan Bowman has had to pay his players high salaries thanks to the free agent demand for players who are well-developed, put in appropriate roles, and showcase their talents in the playoffs.

Here is the chart from the article, which shows the players the Hawks have under contract, with only approximately $8 million in cap space left.

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The situation is interesting to me because here we have a great team that is forced to make a lot of moves to attempt to remain competitive. This isn’t a situation we see that much in hockey – generally the bad teams try and make moves, the good teams only try to get incrementally better, since they are…well…already good, and because they don’t want to break up any supposed dressing room chemistry. But the first thing Stan Bowman’s dilemma reminds me of is the situation in Oakland with Billy Beane and the Athletics. Of course there are differences – Beane is fighting a budget, Bowman a salary cap – but the idea is similar. Going into the 2014 offseason for Beane, and the 2015 offseason for Bowman, both GMs did/will face the task of remaining competitive while cutting salary. It’s a tough situation, made more difficult when opposing managers know the hardships you face, but it is also an incredible opportunity. If I were Bowman, I wouldn’t be dreading the coming offseason. Instead, I’d be waking up every morning and thinking outside the box. “What can we do to cut salary and still extend our window?”

The biggest example of such thinking thus far in the NHL has been with the Philadelphia Flyers traded stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in the same day in order to get younger, free up cap space, and to an extent change the culture (we won’t discuss Ilya Bryzgalov here because it’s not relevant but obviously that signing sabotaged those efforts). So what can Bowman do along those same lines to get younger, extend his window, but still cut salary and potentially improve?

In this case, it won’t start with the stars; Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are not going anywhere. They’re still fairly young, are outstanding players, have no character issues at this point, and there’s no Claude Giroux behind them to pick up the mantle once they’re gone. So one must look beyond that.

My first move would have come prior to the season. Recognizing Nick Leddy to be a future top pairing defenseman using analytic research, and identifying his puck moving abilities as being especially useful in the evolving NHL, I would have signed him to an RFA extension; think of the Roman Josi contract as an example of the type of structure I would seek. In order to clear cap space, I would have traded Patrick Sharp. Of course, none of this did happen, but that likely would have helped with the retooling.

I wrote a piece early on this year about how the Chicago Cubs are targeting young, drafted pitchers once they had developed just enough to get past the stage in which they were likely to bust. The idea was that a similar tact could be taken with defensemen in hockey. There are still guys out there who fit the criteria and could help a retooling team with a low salary, and I would target those guys. Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, Marcus Kruger, Bryan Bickell would all be traded for younger players under team control for longer, with the ability to replace them if not next year then in the near future.

The idea would be to remain competitive next season, at least as competitive as the team would be using a conventional approach to staying under the salary cap under such conditions, but that in two years, rather than fall off the map, the team would return to the top of the standings (think Red Wings of last year versus this year, just in terms of placement).

Understanding the cyclical nature of contender status in hockey is vital to retooling. Sure, technically anybody can win who makes the playoffs, but the probabilities are stacked against a team that tries to hold on another few years with a declining core that can only get worse. Creativity is necessary to turn a contending team into a true dynasty in a salary cap world.

AP Hockey Story of the Day: January 12 – On Shea Weber, Matching Skillsets and Possession Numbers

Sam Page has been doing a great series at SI.com on reconciling the views of the analytics community with conventional opinions on players based on the eye test. Most recently, he took a look at Shea Weber, a polarizing figure among analysts because of his mediocre possession numbers.

Read the piece, because Sam does a great job of breaking down film and coming up with potential explanations for these discrepancies, and the differences between the Weber/Suter and Weber/Josi pairings. His analysis, though, reminded me of a bigger issue surrounding the use of such stats that is important to remember: While these statistics are useful because they are shown to be repeatable and predictive, they are still situation-dependent. As an example, it is tempting to look at With or Without You (WOWY) statistics and use it to say point blank that one player is driving the play and the other reaps the benefits. But the fact is, certain players have skillsets that complement specific other players, and sometimes it’s just about finding the right combinations, the right systems, and the right situations for players.

So what is the important takeaway from all this (other than the fact that a top puck-moving defenseman would sure help the Preds)? Well as a general manager, it’s not just as simple as picking out the players with the best past possession numbers and signing them. In order to ensure that those numbers remain positive in your organization, you need to ensure that said player is a fit in the system, and that you have linemates who can complement their abilities. Every year we see players with supposedly good possession numbers fail to live up to the hype on new teams. Sure, there’s a luck component involved, but a lot of it is a failure to properly evaluate a player’s skillset. As with everything else in hockey, there’s nuance. It’s important to remember that.

AP Hockey Story of the Day: December 30 – Maximizing the Eye Test

The NBA’s Detroit Pistons are increasing their professional scouting abilities by deploying four full-time pro scouts to different parts of the country. They file thousands of reports on players, so that when a move needs to be made, or even just when scouting the opposition, the GM or Head Coach can simply pull up recent reports on players or teams. Some will say that too many scouts can be a bad thing in terms of communication, but I don’t think any team has reached the point where that would be a concern. What this is really doing is maximizing the eye test. There is a recognition that the metrics we have to measure things are far from perfect (even more so in hockey), but rather than combine them with occasional viewings or going off of reputation, you can employ scouts to watch virtually every game. It’s a system that makes a lot of sense and one that NHL teams with the means should immediately explore.

On the Legacies of Marc Trestman and Phil Emery

A large feature of analytics is a focus on process. It involves dissecting the thinking behind decisions more than the decisions themselves, since there is so much variance involved in outcomes. There are so few large decisions that ever come our way, and by evaluating process you can filter out that variance. One of the problems with fans assessing coaches and general managers is that we either judge based on outcomes – which is faulty because of the impact of that variance – or we attempt to get inside the heads of people whom we likely have never met, and whom all we have to go on is decisions themselves, media reports, and press conferences.

The Bears today fired Head Coach Marc Trestman after a very disappointing 5-11 season marred by locker room controversies after coming into the season with Super Bowl aspirations. General Manager Phil Emery was also let go, the man who had hired Trestman two seasons ago. The decisions were completely defensible. For a team with this much talent to perform so poorly was simply unacceptable, and there wasn’t anything to suggest a turnaround for next season in the last few pitiful weeks of the season.

Now I have to admit up front that my connection with Trestman goes back to his time in the CFL back when I would have called myself a CFL fan and a serious Alouettes fan. Trestman took a team that had gone through a number of failed head coaches, couldn’t produce on offense, and was floundering for success, and led it immediately to the Grey Cup, eventually winning two consecutively in his time in Montreal before falling back to earth. When Trestman was hired by the Bears, I was ecstatic because I had seen what he could do with an offense, because of how highly recommended he came from people like Jim Harbaugh, Rich Gannon, and Jay Cutler himself. Some people will now say that Lovie Smith should have kept his job, but after seeing him struggle with an admittedly poor Buccaneers roster this season I can safely say that Smith never would have brought the Bears back the Super Bowl. More on that shortly.

So Trestman came in last season with a mandate to revitalize an offense that hadn’t had success in, frankly, the entire history of the franchise, as well as to defeat the archrival Green Bay Packers. And I think it’s important to note that for 15 weeks, Trestman did just that. The 2013 Chicago Bears featured arguably the best offense in the franchise’s history, and scored the second most points in the NFL. Jay Cutler was very solid, Alshon Jeffery had a breakout season at wide receiver, Matt Forte was once again a monster, the offensive line held up like it hadn’t in past seasons (Trestman had also worked miracles with the offensive line in Montreal) and Josh McCown, unlikeliest of all, stepped in seamlessly on a warm fall day in Washington – a game I attended – and the weeks that followed to bring his team to within one win of a division title.

The flip-side to all this was of course the degradation of what had been a feared defensive unit, into an undisciplined and mentally weak group that teams could run all over, and that would forget to pick up the ball after a questionable fumble. It is important, though, to recognize that the defensive group that Trestman inherited wasn’t the same bunch that led the NFL in turnovers in 2012, or the even more fearsome group that took the team to the Super Bowl six years prior. This was a mashed up bunch of aged retreads like D.J. Williams, sorely lacking their departed leader Brian Urlacher, who were all a year older and over the course of the season suffered injuries like no other team. It is difficult in situations like this to separate the role of the head coach with that of the defensive coordinator – just look at what Rod Marinelli managed to accomplish in Dallas this year – but I would venture to say that even if a Lovie and Marinelli coached Bears defense wouldn’t have allowed the second-most points like Mel Tucker’s D did both last and this season, it would certainly have more closely resembled the Tampa Bay defense that this season allowed the eighth most points than any of those Bears defenses of old. And let’s face it, Lovie’s offense would have remained largely dysfunctional. The Bears went 8-8 last year, but with Lovie I would be surprised if they would have done even that well. He would have been gone, deservedly so, after last year anyway.

But back to Trestman. He came in and introduced an offense that dominated the NFL with a team that had never come close to that in the past. He defeated the Packers – albeit after injuring Aaron Rodgers – in his first attempt, and – maybe most impressively – took a group of players torn apart by the decision to part with Lovie, and brought them together as a family just as he had in Montreal. It’s funny how now, after seeing everything go so wrong, pundits are quick to point to Trestman’s unfailing loyalty to his players and coaches, his unwillingness to throw anybody under the bus, his flexibility and acts of kindness, his actions like changing up locker stalls to bring his full team closer together, all as reasons for his downfall, whereas only just over a year ago he was being applauded for those same characteristics and actions bringing together a locker room that may have crumbled under the leadership of anybody with slightly less charm.

Before addressing this season, I want to talk a bit about Phil Emery. There were the obvious positives, like selecting Alshon Jeffery in the second round of the draft, and the obvious missteps, like taking Shea McLellin in the first round. But every GM has some of both. I listened to just about every press conference Emery gave while in his position, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed by an executive in any sport. Now as I mentioned above, it’s impossible from my position to get a complete read on Emery’s process, and it’s also impossible to know whether other general managers have similar ways of doing business, and Emery was simply better at communicating it to fans and the media, but I would venture to say that Emery’s process, at least at an ideological level, was top notch. Emery consulted a number of different analytical services, he scrutinized every decision he sought to make, he never overreacted, and he seemed to legitimately understand the shift in importance in the NFL towards offense and the passing game, and how best to maximize his team. Many will look at the decision to hire Trestman over Bruce Arians, the likely 2014 Coach of the Year in Arizona, and see only the result. But I liked the decision then and I still like it now. Arians would have been the conventional and the safe choice, and NFL offensive coordinator who had had some success as an interim head coach with the Colts. But Trestman had the potential to be great, he had shown as much in Canada and in his past as an NFL offensive coordinator and in college. Trestman brought ideas new to the league, and while he brought higher risk, if he could overcome his shortcomings, he could easily become a Super Bowl winning coach. It’s easy to look back and say that Arians would have been a better choice – although we don’t actually know that for sure – but how could Emery have known that? Trestman came highly recommended; I would imagine he interviewed spectacularly; and Emery saw the upside there that he didn’t with Arians. The process, or at least what we can ever know of it, was largely sound. In the end, Trestman couldn’t overcome his weaknesses and everything fell apart. But for a season we at least got a glimpse of what Trestman could accomplish. That, plus obviously a superior defense, was what Emery had envisioned, and it’s not unreasonable to think that in a parallel universe we could have seen that become a reality. I understand why the McCaskeys felt that a clean house was needed, but I would have kept Emery, or I’ll put it this way: I think Emery deserved to keep his job, but I think he also understands that by choosing Trestman, he took on a large amount of risk to go with the upside I discussed. Emery took a leap with the hope that a Lombardi Trophy would be the reward but with the understanding that losing his job could be the repercussion. I would hope that any GM would make that move, but also understand why the reasoning falls apart if GMs don’t actually lose their jobs when it doesn’t work out. I wish Emery all the best and I’m sure he will find success wherever he goes next.

But back to Trestman one more time, and to the 2014 season. It’s hard to defend him for his handling of the Aaron Kromer situation – although I’m still baffled at what that was really all about, since apparently coaches blab like that all the time – but again his loyalty to his coach was a characteristic of Trestman that worked well up until it didn’t. In other words, Trestman’s whole culture is built around trust. It’s what makes players want to take a bullet for him. But as soon as that trust is broken even once, the entire system falls apart. Trestman is also used to coaching within this system; it’s the skeleton of his success. But Trestman also hadn’t had to deal with true failure as a head coach before, and when the team stopped winning this season, it became harder and harder to maintain that loyalty and that trust.

And that is why I believe that the mystery behind this both infuriating and confounding season – and for me it’s even more the latter – lies in Trestman’s bread and butter: the offense. Why did a unit that posted the 8th most total yards in 2013 tumble down to 21st in 2014? Why couldn’t the receivers who always looked so open last year after two or three seconds never manage to do so this time around, and why couldn’t Cutler ever find them when they were? In my mind there are two possible explanations. Either Jay Cutler really did ruin this offense, whether through a poor work ethic or an inability to hit throws, or a regression from being above average last season, or the rest of the NFL adapted to Trestman’s schemes, and he couldn’t make the necessary changes to get back on top. While the week 16 game in which Jimmy Clausen ran the offense better than Cutler in any week this season suggests that it is the former, the fact that Trestman didn’t make this change earlier suggests that maybe it was the latter. Was Trestman simply overly loyal to Cutler, and it doomed his offense as a result? Or was Cutler simply helpless in an outdated scheme? It’s a question to which nobody has been able to provide a decent answer, and to me it is the answer to this question that should truly shape Trestman’s legacy as a Chicago Bear. Was his demise the result of an inability to adapt offensively, or a result of his misplaced loyalty in a quarterback he wanted so badly to see succeed, but who simply wouldn’t? Unless somebody undertakes a detailed project to examine film from both last and this year, we may never know the answer (although the futures of both Cutler and Trestman will likely provide some clues), and that’s too bad. Was Trestman a great tactical offensive coach done in by his own system of trust? Or was he overrated tactically, and did that torpedo his interaction with his players?

Whichever version of the truth you opt to believe, there are a few points about Trestman’s legacy that everybody should remember before lumping him in with some of the worst coaches this league has ever seen.

1. Trestman was able to succeed with this offense for a season like nobody has before.

2. It was Emery and not Trestman who hired Mel Tucker to run the defense, and there’s no question it was an unmitigated disaster. What would this team have looked like with better defensive (and special teams) coordinators?

3. Trestman is by all accounts one of the nicest guys in football. There’s no reason to dance on the grave of a guy who gave it his all every week, did some great things, was never stubborn or dismissive with the media or with fans, had a solid process, and in the simply failed under tough situations.

To take this story full circle, there’s a lesson in analytics to be learned here. If it wasn’t obvious before, buying into the practice doesn’t mean you will be successful. It gives you a better chance to be, but it doesn’t mean that a certain GM or a certain coach will balance different numbers, scouting, gut, and other factors correctly in coming to decisions. This is where we are limited in our ability to evaluate. I don’t know how good of a process either Emery or Trestman truly had; we simply can’t with current public knowledge. But it’s clear that both were progressive minds, and maybe Chicago – a town of people with little patience when it comes to failure and accustomed to a workman’s team led by its defense – wasn’t the right setting for the duo to learn together. Managers like to say that they can’t bow to public pressure, but there is a snowballing effect that comes from public displeasure that can lead to a dissolving of locker room culture. It’s something that the Houston Astros are currently figuring out in baseball, and that other organizations will have to reconcile when it comes to analytical adoption sooner rather than later. There is so much nuance involved in sport, and the line between success and failure is so slim. At the end of the day of course, though, success is still success and failure is still failure. And it’s very difficult to reverse course with the same group of people once it goes down the latter path.

So we should all wish the best to Phil Emery and Marc Trestman, hardworking, intelligent, and kind football people, who will undoubtedly have future success in some capacity in football. Just because firings are defensible, doesn’t mean that anybody should dance on the grave of those who lost their jobs. And doesn’t mean that the times at which those people succeeded, or the process used to achieve those successes should be forgotten.

So good luck to you Phil and Marc, thank you for building the greatest Bears offense I have ever seen, and best of luck.