One of the plays that continues to irk me is from the AFC championship game in January between Baltimore and New England. Under a minute into the second quarter, Baltimore faced a 4th-and-1 just three yards from the New England end zone, down by three. The Ravens decided to kick a field goal instead of attempting a fourth-down conversion. They did make the field goal, but ended up losing the game, 23-20, after missing a potentially tying field goal in the dying seconds.
There’s research showing that for most field positions, on average, the benefits of converting on fourth-and-short outweigh the risks, especially in this situation, when a failed conversion attempt would still give the Patriots terrible field position. (Remember that even though the Patriots’ offense had very good numbers, it played a pretty easy schedule, while the Ravens had an above-average defense, as usual.) We can’t know how a converted fourth down and a probable touchdown after that would have changed the game, but the Ravens likely surrendered a few points nonetheless.
In the playoffs, or whenever “the games matter more,” I feel like teams of all sports, are, in general, overly risk-averse. Whether that’s not going for it nearly enough on fourth down, playing the neutral-zone trap (even when, lockout to lockout, 13 of 14 Stanley Cup finalists employed an aggressive forecheck), or regularly clearing the ball to the other side of the field, foregoing any potential attacks in favor of possible chances to counterattack, risk-averse strategies frequently don’t even work that well and tend to be quite boring.
At the college level, though, things are different. Notably, thanks to the sheer numbers of players and teams, the gap between best and worst is greater than in top professional leagues.
Moreover, teams probably have fewer resources and less time available to prepare (especially once schoolwork is factored into the mix). If you’re playing one lesser and one better opponent in a short period of time, maybe your best chance of winning is to avoid risk: You’ll still expect to win against the lesser team and fall to the better one, at the expense of decreasing the expected scoreline difference at the end of each game. But in a sense, this strategy is more aggressive. It could give you a better chance of winning both games, but also of losing both games.
When I watched the men’s soccer team play a scoreless tie with Princeton on Saturday, the strategies employed by Columbia and by Princeton in the first half struck me as pretty risk-averse. That meant no shots on goal from either team in the first half and only one shot on goal from the Light Blue in 110 minutes against a beatable Princeton side (narrow loss to nationally ranked Creighton aside). It certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable soccer I’ve ever seen.
But with a constant flux of players into and off of the roster, only nine nonconference games to tune up and gel, and the demands of everyday work, the coaching staff and players don’t really have time to create, learn, and perfect multiple systems. They need to pick one or two and stick with them.
This year’s team is two goals behind last year’s team (which could have won the conference crown with a win in its finale) and has only scored multiple goals in a game once this season. Defensively, it is four goals better (though the team last year had the disadvantage of losing 5-1 to powerhouse New Mexico). It can’t “run and gun” like Penn tries to do—the Quakers are second to Cornell in goals, but dead last in goals against by almost a goal a game—so it needs to try to lock the game up when it is outmatched and let the game be decided (or drawn) by one or two great individual efforts, crazy bounces of the ball, or errors.
If a team is clearly about as good as any other team in the conference, maybe it doesn’t need to employ this strategy to bolster its chances of winning a conference title. But after almost winning the Ivy crown last season, seeing Brown and Cornell surge ahead, and losing some key contributors, the Lions are going for broke. This strategy may either backfire or allow them to squeak out a win against one of the best sides in the country, Cornell. Add the latter outcome to some fortunate results earlier in the year, and maybe Ivy men’s soccer decides it will anoint big cats, not colors, kings of the Ancient jungle.
This strategy within the context of one game is risk-averse. Within the context of the season, however, it’s plenty aggressive. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exciting.
Muneeb Alam is a Columbia College sophomore. Picked Apart runs biweekly.