Quickie on the ‘eye test’

Big-Eyes-Funny-Animals

A very small example, but illustrative of the limits of the ‘eye test,’ i.e., the limits of the human brain.

Mike and Mike were still talking about the Dez Bryant play this morning. I confess I am less worked up about the call than others (and not, I swear, because I am glad the Cowboys lost). Cowherd (and my friend John) made the fair point earlier this week that the rule, as currently constituted, arguably ‘penalizes’ great athletes. A more ordinary man – assuming he could reach as high as Bryant in the first place – might have simply secured the ball, landed and ended the play. Bryant did all the crazy things he did while, perhaps, trying to stretch for the pylon. While doing so, the ball hit the ground, and the pass was ruled incomplete. But since it’s really impossible to tell whether Bryant was making a “football move,” the refs had no choice. It’s a critical play, of course, but I am not sure it warranted quite the extent and depth of discussion it’s received. I know, I know…

Regardless, Greenie, who was quite exercised by the play, repeated today that he still can’t believe Dallas lost the game, catch or no catch. He said this in the context of a discussion with Schlereth about the importance of running the ball and dominating the line of scrimmage. In Greenie’s mind, that’s what Dallas did to Green Bay on Sunday. I did not remember the game that way at all. Dallas certainly got the better of the play in the first half but, beginning midway through the third quarter, the Packers began to assert control and outplayed Dallas the rest of the way.

Greenie’s eye test and my eye test resulted in very different conclusions. But see, we don’t need to take my word for it, or his. We have a record of the game, in the form of a box score. What does that box score tell us? It tells us that Green Bay outgained Dallas by a decisive one hundred yards, 416-315. This wasn’t a one or two play fluke, either. Green Bay had more first downs than Dallas, 23-21. Yes, Dallas’ superstar running back DeMarco Murray was his usual very productive self, racking up 123 yards on 25 carries. But the Packers’ featured back, Eddie Lacy, did just fine, too. He rushed for 101 yards on 19 carries. Overall, Dallas out-gained the Packers on the ground 145-119. That’s not a big spread. Further, the Packers defense registered four sacks to Dallas’ two. This is noteworthy for two reasons: 1) Romo threw the ball just 19 times while Rodgers threw 35 passes and 2) Rodgers was kept upright despite essentially hopping on one leg the whole game. In sum, it’s fair to conclude that the battle in the trenches was a wash.

I don’t mention this to say “aha!,” I was right and Greenie was wrong. I mis-estimate stuff all the time. My point is that Greenie – and everyone else – had a perception of the game that can be confirmed or disconfirmed. And in this case, his perception does not square with some very basic facts about what he was watching. To repeat – we humans do this with regularity. Sports constitute an interesting and arguably unique social endeavor, in which a set of human interactions can actually be measured and quantified in some detail. That quantification can’t tell us everything about what happened, much less *why.* But it does afford a distinctive opportunity to think about our own perceptions.  And for guys working at ESPN, it should be really easy for them or their staffs to look this stuff up.

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