A False Narrative Anywhere is a Threat to Truth Everywhere

As a first-time blogger here on ALDLAND, with hopes of semi-regular future contributions and an eye towards establishing a reputation for taking on the most popular burning questions of the day, my topic essentially selected itself.  Obviously, I’m compelled to address the issue that is certainly on the minds even of casual fans – the media portrayal of Georgia Tech’s struggles with third and long.  I know, I know, you are probably thinking that is a rather ambitious topic, but hear me out.

If you have watched any Georgia Tech games recently, or in the past 8 years, you have almost certainly heard the television commentators’ familiar refrain whenever Paul Johnson’s option offense gets off schedule.  “This offense isn’t really built for this.”  “This is not where Georgia Tech likes to be.” “Paul Johnson has a good offense, but here is the weakness.” Or my favorite, “they really need to be in third and manageable.”

Odds are, most of you have not watched many, or any, Georgia Tech games.  And those of you who have probably haven’t noticed these comments or paid them much attention.  The few of you who have noticed presumably nodded in relatively indifferent agreement, quickly moving on and largely forgetting the idea.  Meaning, it is just us die hard Georgia Tech fans who care enough to object, and believe me, the twelve of us can get pretty irked.  Downright inflamed at times. 

If you’ve already stopped reading, I urge you to continue.  I know, thus far, I have given you no reason to do so, but there is a chance I will successfully make a worthwhile point eventually.  Anyway, without further ado, here are the numbers from ACC teams since Paul Johnson arrived at Georgia Tech in 2008.  These are compiled from cfbstats.com, and, for a fair and accurate if barely scientific comparison, only examine the 11 teams that have been in the ACC during this entire period.

3rd and 7 or More, All Plays

3rd and 7 or More, Passing Only

3rd and 10 or More, All Plays

3rd and 10 or More, Passing Only

Boston College

11th – 22.73%

11th – 25.49%

10th – 19.00%

11th – 22.34%

Clemson

4th – 30.49%

4th – 36.46%

5th – 22.92%

4th – 28.41%

Duke

7th – 28.61%

8th – 31.72%

6th – 22.40%

8th – 25.33%

Florida State

1st – 34.8%

1st – 42.48%

1st – 30.65%

1st – 41.22%

Georgia Tech

2nd – 32.7%

3rd – 36.92%

2nd – 27.59%

3rd – 31.84%

Miami

8th – 27.81%

7th – 32.14%

7th – 22.13%

6th – 26.48%

North Carolina

6th – 29.00%

5th – 34.34%

11th – 18.72%

9th – 23.37%

NC State

5th – 30.00%

6th – 33.09%

4th – 24.24%

5th – 26.86%

Virginia

9th – 26.42%

9th – 30.63%

9th – 19.21%

10th – 23.03%

Virginia Tech

3rd – 30.88%

2nd – 37.73%

3rd – 27.09%

2nd – 34.62%

Wake Forest

10th – 25.81%

10th – 30.44%

8th – 21.49%

7th – 26.40%

As you can see, Georgia Tech is among the best in the ACC at third and long.  Actually, Georgia Tech is even better than the chart shows, because in addition to being good at converting third and long, Paul Johnson’s offense is excellent at avoiding it.  This is important because, as the numbers illustrate, nobody converts third and long very often.  Georgia Tech faces third and seven or longer just under 8% of all plays, while the conference average is just over 10%.  Georgia Tech faces third and ten yards or longer just 4.4% of all plays, while the conference average is 5.69%.  Georgia Tech is first in the ACC in both categories. 

Notably, Boston College is the worst team in the ACC on these metrics, but you would not have known it from watching the Boston College-Georgia Tech game two Saturdays ago.  The commentators capitalized on seemingly every chance to hit the Paul Johnson 3rd and long talking point.  Even as Georgia Tech was converting a 3rd and 15 and a 3rd and 11 on its first touchdown drive, and a 4th and 19 followed by a 3rd and 10 on its desperation, last minute, game winning drive. 

Obviously, I am a Georgia Tech fan in the original sense of the term (fanatic…), but please pay no attention to the myopic nature of this post, and my clear frustrations. 

The real point here is to beware the narrative.  This idea is a narrative, and, I suspect like most narratives, it caught on because it makes sense.  Paul Johnson’s offense is “boring,” it runs the ball most of the time, and it is usually not pretty when it throws the ball.  So it makes sense right?  That offense shouldn’t be good at third and long.  Most people don’t have time to analyze the vast majority of ideas they encounter and narratives provide quick information, in a way that makes sense and is memorable.  It is a nice neat package and now you understand that issue, you are educated, and you can move on to some other issue.  But what if the narrative is false?  Now you’ve been provided misinformation.  Even worse, that misinformation is more memorable than if you had been provided no information at all. 

What’s troubling here is to think about how many narratives there are in the world today, and what percentage of them are true, and who is out there fact checking.  Perhaps most importantly, whether the good people challenging and testing narratives have much of an audience listening to them.  Because narratives are all over the place.  Not just sports.  In politics.  In the economy.  In education.  In race relations.  In crime.  Now consider how simple this Georgia Tech narrative is.  It is very straightforward.  The facts are simple and clear cut.  Anybody with an internet connection could have disproven this narrative in about 45 minutes.  In fact, some other Georgia Tech fans may have done so before me.  But if they have, their voices were drowned out by the majority, and I never saw it.  I didn’t know the above facts until I decided to look.  But dozens if not hundreds of college football analysts and talking heads, people who get paid lots of money to say the things they say, have agreed with it and repeated it time and time again. 

Why?  Why do they do that?  That’s a question that I cannot answer.  I don’t believe it is any sort of conspiracy.  I don’t believe any of the experts felt pressured to conform to popular opinion.  Why would they?  Nobody particularly cares about this narrative and any expert disproving it would likely get credit for good analysis.  Such an expert shouldn’t experience any blowback, because, again, the facts are readily available, simple and straightforward.

Now, compare this wildly successful narrative (which isn’t going to stop anytime soon – but at least now all of you can join me in rolling your eyes if you happen to be watching a GT game) to others.  Think about the narratives in politics.  And how few of them are simple, with clear cut and easy to process facts.  If a narrative can form, and exist, and convince essentially the entire country that a “fact” is true, when its actually false and very easily disprovable – imagine the danger of narratives in politics, which have far better conditions within which to form and fester.  How do you stop a false narrative once it starts?  The Georgia Tech 3rd and long narrative should be easy to stop.  But it isn’t. 

At the risk of sounding like Professor Keating from Dead Poet’s society, we must constantly examine everything from a different angle, and question our assumptions.  Beware the narrative. 

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