Real-Life Logic: Fantasy Football and the LSAT

Fresh off a simultaneously frustrating and satisfying Sunday of fantasy football, I’m back to talk about the LSAT, And what better way to study for the LSAT (or completely ruin your enjoyment of fantasy sports) than to analyze a logical error that’s brought up with alarming regularity in the sports world? My spidey-sense was triggered yesterday when I heard an analyst yesterday claim that “The Redskins need to give Alfred Morris more carries; in the last ten games that Alfred Morris has received 20 or more carries, the Redskins are 9-1!” Is this a good argument?

Alfred Morris is your traditional between-the-tackles power runner. For you non-football folk out there, it basically means that he’s very one-dimensional in what he does – he runs the ball (very well!), and nothing else. On passing plays where the running back is one of the passing options, he’s usually subbed out for teammate Roy Helu, Jr, who is a much better pass catcher.

Next, it’s important to establish that the run game serves several purposes in a football game aside from just gaining yards. Relevantly, it also serves to control the clock, keeping the opposing offense off the field. In late-game situations, the utility of the run game is high – each team only gets 3 timeouts, and each team is only bound to run one play every 40 seconds. So if you can keep the ball for a long period of time by running one play every 40 seconds, as long as you keep moving down the field it could be a long, long time before your opponents get the ball. It’s not unheard of for a team to eat 8, 9, even 10 minutes off the clock on just one drive. When you’re protecting a lead, this is unbelievably useful. It’s beyond the scope of this post to delve into further football strategy, but this primer should suffice even for non-football heads.

So, back to the argument. First things first – let’s split it up into premise and conclusion. Premise: When Alfred Morris runs the ball 20 or more times, the Redskins are 9-1. Conclusion: Therefore, the Redskins should give Alfred Morris the ball more.

This is your basic one premise, one conclusion argument. Let’s analyze!

Assumption #1: Wins are the goal (i.e. going 9-1 is desirable)

This sounds dumb, but it’s really not. There is a phenomenon known as “tanking” in professional sports, where teams with no chance at the playoffs begin jockeying to secure a better draft pick at the conclusion of the year – usually best achieved by losing. This presumably allows them to draft one of the best players in the incoming class, improving their team for the future. Usually, tanking isn’t executed by telling the players to not try their best, because players have professional pride and hate losing. Rather, the coach starts starts cutting the playing time of his star players to “save” them, or makes weird substitutions to “see what he’s got” in a guy, or start taking iffy risks because they’ve got nothing to lose. For their part, the front office can trade away all of their stars to “rebuild” for the future, or take on purposely bad players on short-term contracts knowing that they’re going to be cut loose after the season is over. In other words, it’s not that they “purposely” lose so much as it is that winning takes a backseat to talent evaluation, franchise management, and other such concerns.

This happens not to be true in this case, as the Washington Redskins are in the thick of the playoff position fight. But if they were 0-8, you suddenly can’t assume that they want to win anymore. If Alfred Morris running 20 times a game leads to a win 90% of the time (also a huge assumption; we’ll discuss that in a second) but your ultimate goal is to lose, you’d instruct your coach to do the exact opposite – to NOT run Alfred Morris 20 times a game.

Assumption #2: Alfred Morris isn’t already getting the ball 20 times a game on a consistent basis

In order for the conclusion to be that we have to get Morris the ball MORE, it’s implied that he’s not yet hitting the threshold. This is a classic necessary assumption – if he’s already getting the ball 20 or more times a game, the conclusion makes no sense. Note that if the conclusion said “Alfred Morris should get the ball 20 or more times per game” instead, this would no longer be an assumption – that conclusion is independent of the number of carries Morris is currently receiving. It’s only because we use the relative term “more” that it becomes an issue.

Assumption #3: 9-1 is more desirable than the alternative

What if in the last ten games Alfred Morris DIDN’T get the ball 20 times, the Redskins are 10-0? Then, we don’t want Morris to get 20 carries, because the team has historically done worse when that’s happened (again, assuming that winning is the goal)!

Assumption #4: Alfred Morris getting the ball 20 times is the reason the Redskins are 9-1 in those games

This is the biggest assumption of all. There are so many factors in football that lead to a win, such that it’s really tough to isolate Alfred Morris as the sole reason, or even a substantial portion of the reason, that the Redskins are 9-1 in those games.  There are lots of ways to do this, but I’m going to focus on the clock control aspect I outlined above.

In football, teams that are behind usually start passing a lot more than they run. Once you get down by a few touchdowns you don’t have the time to grind out yards 3-4 at a time on the ground. When you’re playing from behind, one of those 10-minute drives is the last thing you want – you need to score fast! So, teams tend to turn to the passing game a lot more when they’re behind, leaving runners who can’t catch passes like Alfred Morris in the dust. Conversely, when teams are ahead, they want to bleed clock. Since the clock stops when a pass falls incomplete, the best way to ensure the clock keeps running is to send your running back right up the middle of the field – something Alfred Morris excels at. So you start to see a confounding factor here – what situation is Alfred Morris getting his 20 carries in? Is his team up by 3 touchdowns when they start turning to him to start to bleed clock?  If so, that puts a huge hole in the idea that the Redskins are winning BECAUSE Alfred Morris is getting 20 carries. In fact, it would be the exact opposite – Alfred Morris is getting 20 carries BECAUSE the Redskins are winning and need to waste some clock.

How many of these did you take for granted? 

This is a instance of classic correlation-causation confusion. Alfred Morris getting 20 carries coincides with the Redskins winning, but it is not okay to then conclude that Morris should get the ball more, because we still don’t know whether Morris is the cause of the wins. It could be the opposite, or there could be a third factor (aliens?) causing both to happen.

So now, we’ve identified a bunch of assumptions our argument makes and why they’re not okay – in other words, reasons this argument is potentially flawed. So where do we go from here? If we want to fix the argument (strengthen it) we need to deal with these assumptions. So, we can add information that the Redskins want to win, that they’re worse when Morris doesn’t get 20 carries, that he doesn’t currently get 20 carries on a consistent basis, and that Morris’s workload is the reason the Redskins are winning. That last point in particular would be tough to prove of course, but the LSAT doesn’t ask you to prove anything in a strengthening question – it asks you to identify a statement which, IF TRUE, strengthens the argument. On the flip side, if you want to make this argument worse (weaken it), you do the exact opposite – the Redskins want to lose, or they’re better when Morris gets less work, or that he already gets 20 carries on a regular basis, or Morris’s workload has nothing to do with the Redskins’ chances of winning. If they ask for a sufficient assumption, simply connect the premise to the conclusion: “If the Redskins win a lot more than they lose when Morris gets 20 carries, he should get more carries” or something along those lines. And if they want a necessary assumption, #s 1, 2, and 3 above will all work – practice your negation testing!

Hooray, another hobby ruined by the LSAT.

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