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Freakonomics Radio

Tackling old football myths

Stephen Dubner Jan 25, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It’s that moment every two weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name, it’s about the hidden side of everything, as you’ve heard me say before. Dubner, welcome back.

Stephen Dubner: Hey Kai, thank you. And listen, congratulations to you: Your beloved New York Giants are headed back to the Super Bowl.

Ryssdal: I know. How about that Eli Manning, huh? Peyton who?

Dubner: So you’re happy now, so it seems like a good time for me to confess a little something I’ve been hiding from you, which is I’ve been kind of two-timing you.

Ryssdal: Hey, ho, wait, what?

Dubner: I’ve been doing these football Freakonomics segments for the NFL Network during this season.

Ryssdal: All right, I don’t love that, but OK, that’s fine. Whatever.

Dubner: All right but here’s the upside, which is I’d like to share with you a few of the things I’ve learned, kind of the hidden side of the Super Bowl, if you will.

Ryssdal: Yeah, but Dubner, here’s the thing: There’s a lot of people who watch this game or go to parties about it — between the dip and the beer and all that stuff — who don’t really know a whole lot about football itself. So what do you got?

Dubner: So if you want to impress your friends, you can explode some cherished football myths. Such as, here’s one: Defense wins championships.

Ryssdal: What do you mean? Of course they do.

Dubner: Not really true. Now, of course, you’d rather have a great defense than a bad one, but statistically, if you look at past Super Bowls and just football in general, defense is not the magic bullet that the cliche suggests. And in fact, if you look at the matchup this year: During the regular season, on defense, the Giants and the New England Patriots ranked 27th and 31st respectively out of 32 teams.

Ryssdal: And in fact, actually, the games came down to special teams — the field goal units.

Dubner: That’s right, they both squeaked in. Which brings us, here’s another myth: Icing the kicker. Now that’s where the opposing coach will call a timeout just as the poor field goal kicker is about to try this critical field goal to tie or win the game. And the idea is they’re trying to get inside the kicker’s head. Turns out, statistically, a kicker is no more likely to miss a kick if he’s been iced, and in fact, it may even give him a slight advantage in that he’s got a little bit more time to prepare for the kick.

Ryssdal: So what does matter then?

Dubner: Well, home field advantage is nice. There’s a real measurable effect — not just in football, but across all sports. However, it’s not necessarily for the reasons we think — the old sleeping in your own bed and familiarity with the field. It turns out that probably the biggest single explanatory factor for home field advantage is the officials. They make more calls in favor of the home team. Now, NFL officials are very, very good. But they’re also human. And on some level, most humans seek approval, and in this case and in the case of football, from 60,000 screaming fans. Hard to ignore.

Ryssdal: You know what, I got you here, Dubner. This is my a-ha moment with you. You ready? Here’s the thing.

Dubner: We live for these.

Ryssdal: Unlike the NBA championships and unlike Major League Baseball and the World Series, the Super Bowl is played in a neutral site, right? It’s in Indianapolis this year.

Dubner: Correct. But here’s the hidden side of the hidden side.

Ryssdal: That’s very meta dude, but anyway, go ahead.

Dubner: Let’s not forget that Giants quarterback Eli Manning has a big brother named Peyton, you referred to, Peyton Manning. He’s been the backbone of the Indianapolis Colts for more than a decade.

Ryssdal: Or the neck bone, this season. But he wasn’t.

Dubner: That’s exactly right. So he was out this year, but even so, the crowd at most Super Bowls is full of out-of-towners. I would not be shocked if there’s enough pro-Manning family sentiment in Indianapolis to maybe translate into a slight home field edge for the Giants.

Ryssdal: Well, I certainly hope. Let me know, though, speak on behalf of those who don’t really know or care about the game and they just want to watch and go to the party. Is there a thing that they can use to perhaps pick a winner?

Dubner: Here’s the thing, Kai: You may not know this about me — I’m a bit of a crusader against bacterial infections. No, I’m serious.

Ryssdal: No, so am I. It surprises me not at all.

Dubner: Non-sequitur coming from a Super Bowl, right? But especially in hospitals and other public places, I’m always railing against poor hand hygiene. Well, last week, we had a football Freakonomics shoot in the Giants locker room. It was empty at the time, and guess what I saw there, Kai?

Ryssdal: I don’t know, man. What?

Dubner: On top of every urinal in the Giants locker room, there was a big dispenser of antibacterial solution. Right there on every urinal! I’ve got to tell you, even if Eli Manning is too laidback of a quarterback for your taste, or if you don’t like Coach Tom Coughlin’s old school style, from a public health perspective, I think you’ve got to be rooting for Big Blue, the New York Giants.

Ryssdal: Yeah buddy, you heard it here first. Giants by two touchdowns over Tom Brady, I’m telling you.

Dubner: Because their hands are cleaner.

Ryssdal: That’s right. Stephen Dubner, he does Freakonomics Radio. It’s Freakonomics.com, the website. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: OK, Kai. Good luck.

Ryssdal: Yeah, man. Hey, I’m sorry about the Steelers, by the way.

Dubner: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

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