R-E-L-A-X: It’s Only Week One

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

If you’re the type of person who likes to draw conclusions about a team after the first game of a season, you probably thought the New England Patriots’ dynasty would end in 2014 following an opening week loss to the Miami Dolphins and the 2007 New York Giants defense would be a bust after allowing 45 points in week one. In both cases you would’ve been wrong.

If you’re the type of person who likes to draw absolute conclusions after week one, you’re probably very worried about the 2019 Northwestern Wildcats football team after its first game.  I’ll admit, I was initially worried too. Last year’s magical run to the Big Ten Championship Game created a “new standard” for the program. That coupled with the introduction of former five-star recruit Hunter Johnson at quarterback have only made Northwestern fans expect even more this season.

But following Saturday’s disheartening 17-7 loss at the hands of the Stanford Cardinal, and, more specifically, Johnson’s major struggles, there seems to be much angst throughout the fanbase about this team. “Mick McCall should be fired,” “the defense can’t tackle,” “they committed too many bad penalties” are some talking points circulating social media. It seems, though, that we’re using these negatives from week one to anticipate how the rest of the season will go. If that’s the case, Northwestern will average seven points per game, a handful of turnovers per game, and lead the country in missed tackles. Obviously, that’s an absurd statement to make. As Aaron Rodgers eloquently stated to anxious Green Bay Packers fans in 2014: “R-E-L-A-X.”

No one should be faulted for feeling the way they do. We should understand, though, that a couple of cognitive biases are in play, and this seems like an appropriate time to look at how they’re affecting our evaluation of Northwestern football.

Recency bias is a psychological phenomenon in which we become “inclined to use our recent experience as the baseline for what will happen in the future,” according to financial planner Carl Richards. In the context of Northwestern football, our “recent experience” is watching a team in 2018 that won ugly games they probably shouldn’t have always won, was the least penalized in the country, avoided costly turnovers and received steady quarterback play.

But Saturday’s performance contradicted all of those factors: the ‘Cats lost an ugly game, they committed a couple of penalties at very inopportune times, they turned the ball over four times and the fans, at least, were thoroughly disappointed in the play of their new quarterback. 

There’s still plenty of time for NU to turn it around—after all, it’s only one game. Just think back to the 2018 team that started off 1-2 following debilitating losses at home to Duke and Akron before playing well against Michigan and reeling off eight wins against the Big Ten West. At the same time, though, we shouldn’t expect the ‘Cats to look like they did at the end of last season at the beginning of this season. That’s impractical.

As Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald mentioned in his postgame press conference, “we go live (in practice) very rarely,” meaning there isn’t much contact representative of what the players would see in a game during the preseason. But he provided very logical reasoning behind this strategy.

“Number one, I want to keep our team healthy and safe. And number two, it’s a long year, especially with two bye weeks this year, it’s a long season. The way the NCAA rules have now compressed training camp to where you have to have everything done, you can’t take days off,” Fitzgerald said.

Even though the ‘Cats had been preparing for Stanford for roughly a month, they still minimized the level of game-like contact in practice, and that certainly helped in the injury department, as Northwestern traveled to Palo Alto with a mostly healthy roster. However, the players’ rust certainly showed.

So, on one front, we need to understand that this team hasn’t consistently played in game-like situations in nine months. On another front, Fitzgerald discussed the performance of his redshirt sophomore quarterback who was playing in his first collegiate game since the fall of 2017.

“Here’s a guy that is learning an offense, and six out of seven years he’s had a new offense,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s going to get better, he’s going to work at it, he’s got a great attitude and am I disappointed in the way we played around him, the way we executed offensively? Absolutely. And so, we’ve got to be a lot better. There’s no doubt about that. I’ve got great confidence in him.”

The amount of coverage Johnson received in his first year on campus has been substantial. As much as he probably tries to block that out and focus on football, it’s only human that he feels the pressure, as not only a former five-star recruit, but also the successor to the most successful quarterback in school history in Clayton Thorson. And compounding the mental aspect is the fact that he hasn’t played in a collegiate game in roughly two years and hasn’t played a meaningful snap since his senior year of high school back in 2016. He’s a human being just like the rest of us, and it will probably take some time before he clicks in the offense. 

In summary, our “recent experience” with Northwestern football was watching a team in late-season form play fundamentally sound football. The performance seen Saturday was a team playing its first game in exactly nine months against a very strong Stanford program with a quarterback essentially playing his first “meaningful” game at the college level. It certainly wasn’t a pretty performance by any stretch, but we need to be a little more realistic with the situation before we start expecting the 2019 team to be just as successful as in 2018.

In 2009, statistician Nate Silver wrote an article for Esquire in which he presented his “theory” on the phenomenon of recency bias. He focuses mainly on the 2008 Financial Crisis, but also ties in an error many baseball teams make when it comes to paying players in free agency.

“After studying the free-agent bidding process for many years, however, I have concluded that this money is not generally well spent. Teams tend to discount risk, particularly the risk of injury. And they tend to place too much emphasis on recent performance as opposed to a player’s longer track record, invariably overpaying for a player who had a career year.”

An example he provides is the New York Yankees’ acquisition of pitcher A.J. Burnett prior to the 2009 season. In 2008 with the Toronto Blue Jays, Burnett made a career-high 34 starts and had a career-high 231 strikeouts in 221.1 innings pitched. Though Silver didn’t know this at the time, the Yankees would in fact overpay for Burnett. Over the course of his 5-year $82 million contract of which only three years were played in New York, Burnett never struck out 200 batters in a season and posted an ERA of 4.79. 

Yes, this is just one example, but I’m sure you can think of several instances across any sport in which a team overpaid for a player who was coming off of a career year. Now the question becomes, why do we all succumb to this fallacy?

Turning back to Richards, he says that “we rely on habit to help us make things easier because few people want to reinvent their lives every day. But this habit of forming habits also does something else.” He argues that this recency bias “can trick us into making decisions we might not make otherwise.” In the case of Northwestern football, our experience with the 2018 team “tricks us,” if you will, into anticipating this season will also be an incredible success. And it might be. But it’s impossible to know after one game, yet we think we know how the season will turn out because the slice of experience we have with the 2019 team provides an outlet for anticipating how the season will progress.

Let’s take this out of a football context momentarily to get a better understanding. Imagine your friend introduces you to someone at school or work. When you meet the person, they are rude to you and you become disappointed because you assumed because your friend introduced you to them, they could also become a friend. In that brief encounter, you made all kinds of judgments about that person and even after only a two-minute interaction, you conclude you do not want to talk to this person again. 

What most of us misinterpret in this context is that we assume that because that person was rude to us in that brief period, that must be how they always act. In addition to recency bias, another fallacy known as the Fundamental Attribution Error is in play. This is when we overestimate the role of someone’s personality in a situation, and we underestimate the role of situational factors (maybe they’re having a bad day, etc.). In essence, we are committing the same error when evaluating Northwestern football: we are overestimating the poor play of the team as being the reason for the loss and underestimating the fact that this was their first game in nine months against a very talented opponent.  

Let’s imagine the situation was flipped, and the ‘Cats defeated Stanford 35-0. You’d certainly call for Northwestern to be ranked in the top 25, and perhaps in the top 15 or even 10. In this circumstance, you’d again underestimate the role luck and other situational components played. Maybe if a couple of calls or plays went differently the score would’ve been 24-17. The point is, performances in the first game of a season after a nine-month layoff cannot always be positively correlated with how the entire season will shape up. Although Saturday’s showing might not align with what we remember about how Northwestern football played in our “recent experience,” there’s still a long way to go.

Economist Dylan Evans wrote an article for Risk Management Magazine in 2012 entitled “Nightmare Scenario: The Fallacy of Worst-Case Thinking.” This trend is the second component to how many Northwestern fans likely felt following the loss to Stanford – “This team is horrible,” “Mick McCall should be fired,” “the defense can’t tackle,” “they committed too many bad penalties.” We’re overreacting.

Evans starts off with a story about former United States Vice President Dick Cheney and the “1% doctrine.” He says: “Cheney apparently remarked: ‘If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis…It’s about our response.’” But Evans proceeds to say that “by transforming low-probability events into complete certainties whenever the events are particularly scary, worst-case thinking leads to terrible decision making.” 

Of course, the performance of Northwestern football in 2019 is far less important than a terrorist organization developing nuclear weapons. But the evaluation of the situations is fascinatingly similar. In viewing a 1% probability as an absolute truth, you are essentially saying “it could happen and is likely to occur because it agrees with what I want to believe.” With Al Qaeda, it’s justifiable to “want to believe” they were developing nuclear weapons even when intelligence suggested otherwise. Similarly, with Northwestern football, after witnessing its lackluster performance on Saturday, it’s understandable to say “the ‘Cats looked terrible. This is going to be a long season.” On the surface it aligns with logical thinking to say this team performed poorly today, so they will perform poorly in the future. In doing so, though, we fail to acknowledge that this team hadn’t played a game in nine months and had a quarterback playing his first game in a new offense.

I’ll admit, Al Qaeda and nuclear weapons is a very radical digression from analyzing a team playing a sport in which 300-pound college students ram into each other with massive force. But it’s useful in understanding how we also have a tendency to overreact as a means of relieving uncertainty. Humans don’t like uncertainty. So, we’d rather say that the first game of the season is exactly how the rest of the season will play out instead of acknowledging that there are still many games left to be played, and we simply don’t know how things will pan out. The problem is that the latter is a more complex way for the brain to make sense of the world, whereas the former is much simpler.

Psychologist Gary Klein in writing about the psychology of anticipation references a study by Feltovich et al. in which the researchers explain how people oversimplify situations. Klein writes: “Of course, some simplification is necessary in order to manage complex situations. So the challenge is to simplify skillfully and in ways that do not excessively distort the dynamics of a situation.” That last piece is where I think we’re going wrong. We are “excessively distorting the dynamics of a situation.” 

We’ve covered a lot of ground, somehow relating Northwestern football with the Yankees’ decision to sign A.J. Burnett, Dick Cheney’s misguided thinking about Al Qaeda and nuclear weapons and insight from economists and psychologists. But I want to return to Aaron Rodgers.

I’m not saying the ‘Cats will be as successful as they were last season. I’m also not saying they will perform as poorly as they did on Saturday in every subsequent game this season. I think the best course of action in this situation is to take a few steps back and not lose the forest for the trees. I know living with uncertainty is uncomfortable, especially when we’ve poured so much energy into talking about and hyping up the football program in 2019, but it’s the most reasonable approach to the situation. 

We need to remind ourselves that it was only one game and just “R-E-L-A-X”. 

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