The New England Patriots and Uncanny Perfection

As the New England Patriots may be showing, the best evidence of a poseur, cheat, or a fraud is uncanny perfection.

This article is about how outlying behavior without explanation demands scrutiny. Perfection, or near perfection (especially if neatly calculated) is so uncommon as to be an indication of ill-dealing.

The NFL’s New England Patriots are only a prop. This applies to all of us.

Watch out for it.

Logical links to prior thoughts on this topic

Last year, I wrote on the use of Bayes’ Rule to uncover when enough evidence was enough to make a decision.

Link: When Enough is Enough

The thesis in that one was that one powerful indicator of deviant behavior or a long history of slight deviances were equally enough evidence to underpin a decision to promote, accelerate, or move on.

Last week, I wrote on the interesting (to me) ethical questions raised around the New England Patriot’s winning big while allegedly cheating in the AFC Championship game.

Link: Deflated Footballs and Minor Ethical Lapses

Many, many people claimed, and still claim, that the alleged cheating didn’t matter because it didn’t affect the outcome of the game.

My point was that process matters.

Nothing new there.

Now, there’s a fascinating bit of information on the New England Patriots that has come out that brings another ethical insight to light that combines these two theses.

Today, I get this link in my inbox. It’s an article picked up by and written by a sports handicapper named Warren Sharp.

The link is to an analysis of team fumble rates in the NFL under different conditions. In a nutshell, it says that the New England Patriots have an uncanny and longstanding ability to avoid dropping the football. Here’s the operative quote:

Based on the assumption that fumbles per play follow a normal distribution, you’d expect to see, according to random fluctuation, the [fumble rate] results that the Patriots have gotten over this [2010 – 2014] period, once in 16,233.77 instances.

To quote Lloyd Christmas’ question: “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance?”

Yes, but a shockingly remote one.

The bigger chance is that the Patriots are different from other teams. They have figured out a competitive advantage. Conjoin that with the newest revelation of potential cheating by deflating balls, and a clear history of cheating in the franchise in the past, and?

The most likely explanation is that they have been cheating for years, acquiring a competitive advantage that is as immense as it is unlikely.

This isn’t about a single game whose outcome didn’t matter…But rather about longstanding, likely ill-gotten gains.

Sound familiar? Enough is enough.

Because it’s a global audience…a digression for the un-versed…

For those who aren’t versed in the cheating accusations against the Patriots, let me give the one sentence explanation:

The Patriot’s alleged use of deflated footballs would enable better grip by those players who handle the football, resulting in better control–especially in wet or slippery conditions–when throwing, catching, or running with the football and therefore a lower probability of drops, fumbles, and subsequently turnovers.

For those who don’t know, an American Football team’s turnover margin (that is the net number of times the ball is relinquished to or recovered from opponents through error) in a given game is an extremely powerful indicator of win likelihood. An advantage in grip on the ball is therefore significant.

The shocking, interesting, and applicable analysis

Mr. Sharp, in the midst of multiple cuts at the data, compiled this view of the NFL offenses’ fumble rates per play from scrimmage. I’m reproducing it here for commentary. The analysis is fully Mr. Warren Sharp’s.

Fumbles are the small circles, fumble rates (per play) are the orange boxes. New England is on the far right. Two things you notice immediately:

First, that New England (the far right side team) has a fumble per play rate that is in the stratosphere. They have a fumble every 187 plays. That’s truly exceptional (as the chart shows).

Second, as the article outlines, is that the next three best teams–the ones who even approach being outliers–are dome teams.

Not only is New England great at protecting the football, but they also do it better than teams with structural advantages that New England doesn’t have.

All of this is over a very long period of time (5 years) so “noise” should be shaken out of the analysis to a large degree.

Impressive? Yes. Fraudulent? Probably.

What the message is…

Such an analysis has real world applicability beyond the game of American Football. And, I’ll tell you why: If I told you that a team was so good at a key aspect of the game over the long run so as to be a near statistical impossibility, and then told you they had possibly been caught cheating in a way that would directly affect that aspect, what would be your conclusion?

The Patriots’ out-performance on fumbles is striking. Especially when you consider the conditions they often play under (in New England and outdoors). It’s akin to a company in a mature, commodity industry constantly and significantly outperforming companies in high value added, high growth industries. It can happen easily over the short term, and could possibly happen over the long term if the company were doing truly special things within the rules; but it deserves some scrutiny.

Statistical, financial, job performance, or any other kind of perfection should raise your fraud antenna in the first place. Combine it with observation of ethical “grayness” and you’d better watch out.

The message is that practical perfection should be applauded, but also scrutinized. The more perfect your investments, subordinates, or superiors are, the more you ought to ask the penetrating questions on why. The moment you observe lying, cheating, stealing, or (note this) aggressive isolation of people who decide to ask questions; you should be careful.

That isolation point is an important one: Remember when Jeff Skilling at Enron called an investment analyst an “asshole” on an investor conference call? The analyst only asked a practical question: Why couldn’t Enron produce a balance sheet?

Here’s a link to that episode.

It’s a fascinating moment in the unmasking of a fraud.

Interesting isn’t it?

This is especially important if you are the senior executive or board member who is benefitting from current ethical grayness.

Earnings look too perfect? Ask the question.

Reports on operations or people or sales too rosy? Ask the question.

I can assure you that Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, now wishes he would have asked a few questions over the past few years.

3 practical applications

I guess there’s a message here for people looking to ferret out or avoid being entangled within a fraud…Look for the quiet successes–individual or organizational–that lack any semblance of failure. Perfection is great, but not common.

A few more points:

  • Watch out for “tsk tsk” behavior by those who benefit from the perfection. Righteous indignation is the first and scariest refuge of the fraudster. When you ask someone about their methods, and they give you the “how dare you” act, you have a powerful indication. The Patriots tried this early last week, but the situation quickly got beyond their control.
  • Statistics matter. If someone is “perfect” or winning by a lot and can’t really explain what they are doing so well, take that as a hint. A “perfect” executive likely buries a lot of skeletons. A company with “perfect” financial performance likely carries a lot of fat or a lot of creative accounting. The Patriots’ statistics show how creative they are, we just don’t know how (yet).
  • Observations matter. Ask around. If others indicate ethical grayness exists in the historical record; or they simply won’t talk, you probably have your answer. Closed ranks or a history of crushed complaints provide you the indication you need. The Patriots were branded cheaters years ago, and such a track record will be in the record during this current “scandal.” If you are a board member or executive, all you have to do is ask, but you might have to ask the second order question… There have been no ethical complaints? What if the environment is such that nobody would dare complain? Go to the source at least once or twice at decade.

I have no particular axe to grind when it comes to the New England Patriots. I do, however, think that there are lessons to be learned from the “Deflategate” scandal both in the behaviors of the Patriots franchise and in the peculiar reactions to it by fans and pundits.

The Patriots’ statistical “perfection” is starting to look more and more like a fraud, and while it pales in comparison to famous frauds like Enron, Worldcom, Tyco International, or AIG; it provides some of the same human elements that all these others had in common.

The lesson? Be vigilant, especially when things are too perfect.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *