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The Human Target

Confirmation bias is defined, roughly, as interpreting events in such a way that they conform to your preconceived prejudices about a topic. One example would be remembering every time Derek Jeter came through at a key moment, and likewise when Alex Rodriguez did not succeed in such situations. You've, probably, already prejudged the players; one is "clutch" (whatever that means), and one is not. When Jeter fails to come through, and Rodriguez blasts a three run shot to the upper deck, those instances are attributed to luck or some other situational factor that can be explained away. When they meet your expectations? That's strictly owing to their instrinsic fortitudes. Jeter is a gamer. A-Rod is a choke artist. That's what the tabloid backpages and talk radio say.

I tend to fall toward the A-Rod side of those kinds of debates. That's the way I try to approach any questions I have, whether in sports or other fields of inquiry; is it possible that my set assumptions could be wrong? Can I be humble enough to look back and see if I erred at a point along the way?

That's the qualifying disclaimer I want to preface the following few paragraphs, because: god damn, if it didn't seem like opposing defenses were gleefully picking on Jason McCourty in 2008. I don't want to pile on the guy too much, but McCourty figuratively did seem to have a target on his back for most of the 2008 season.

Football analysis can be a tricky thing. If you don't have a background in coaching and scouting, and I do not, how exactly can you properly evaluate the complex relationships and inner workings that go on in the midst of every single play? One problem is that, when watching each play, most people have the tendency to follow the ball, and don't really pay attention to line play. You only pay attention if an offensive linemen is putting up little to no resistance to opposing pass rushers, leading to a quarterback repeatedly hitting the turf.

Evaluating secondary play is difficult for its own reasons: most television camera angles don't show the entire scope of the field, cutting receivers battling defensive backs off the screen (hence why independent evaluators like Football Outsiders have fought for access to the NFL's proprietary coaches' film). This is another area where bias can sneak back into the equation: it's very possible that a hypothetical defensive back could give up one or two big plays, in an otherwise solid day. And yes, individual players do not exist in a vacuum. Perhaps a team is playing zone, and a corner passes a receiver off, expecting safety help that does not arrive. That is why, while statistical yards per completion statistics can be informative to an extent in evaluating defensive back play, they do not and can not tell the entire story.

While there were many culprits for RU's slow start in 2008, one of the largest was the secondary's propensity to give up big plays. In 2007, Rutgers ranked 16th in FBS in pass efficiency defense; they fell to 66th in 2008. There are a couple possible explanations for this dropoff. Rutgers fell from 12 to a tie for 40th in sacks, which should usually correlate with a pass rush (I thought the pass rush was pretty good for most of the year though). Rutgers lost a four year starter at safety in Ron Girault, who had been the "quarterback" of the secondary, responsible for the assignments, positioning, and signals. Rutgers also had to replace their old secondary coach in Chris Demarest with a combination of Chris Hewitt and Ed Pinkham.

The losses of Girault and Demarest intuitively seem like culprits worthy of further explanation. It would be one thing if Jason McCourty was simply beaten due to a lack of speed or athleticism. I think part of the reason Courtney Greene was burned in coverage so much this year is because he was ill-suited to the role. However, McCourty is very fast, and seems to run in the 4.4 range in the forty yard dash. That, combined with top notch smarts and intangibles, is why he's still very much on the NFL's radar (with an invite to the Texas vs. the Nation game). Rather, as far as I could tell, McCourty's struggles this season were due to a series of mental mistakes, poor guesses, bad reads, and so forth. It seemed from the opener against Fresno State onward, opposing defenses were content to pick on him all day.

Not every big play was his fault - specifically, I can recall an uncalled pushoff against NC State that resulted in a large gain. McCourty's play did improve in the second half of the season (along with the rest of the team), and I cannot for certain point out every missed assignment or inadequate pass rush. Sometimes, opposing quarterbacks have all day to throw, and every passing second greatly increases the chances for a DB to make a critical mistake.

In closing, let me reiterate the fact that Jason McCourty did have a generally solid career throughout his years on the banks. He was advanced enough to see the field as a true freshman, while his twin brother Devin had to take a redshirt. That's why his poor play in 2008 came as such a perplexing surprise. Every game in September and October was going by the same script - deep Go route down the sidelines from Teel to a Rutgers received misses by inches, while the opponent is completing those plays for a monster gain. Jason McCourty subsequently became a deserved scapegoat. Not only was the secondary giving up big plays, but they were concurrently failing to produce turnovers.

With his 2-interception game against USF, Jason not only managed to turn around his own season, but the collective fortune of the team as a whole. It was fitting that it came against USF; he had been responsible for a critical stop on a failed two point conversion against the Bulls in 2006. He had finally come full circle, just as was the entire Scarlet Knight team coalescing around him.