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The Dangers of Hindsight Bias

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Hindsight is 20/20. In the heat of the moment, tough decisions are made. Sometimes they work out. Sometimes they don’t. One thing we, as fans, need to avoid is hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is when you look back on a situation and say, “Well, yeah, of course they should have done this instead of that because what they did didn’t work. I knew it wouldn’t work.” If you disagreed with the call at the time, that’s fine. However, it’s important to understand the reasoning as to why those tough decisions were made and avoid hindsight bias.

The Indianapolis Colts currently sit two games back of the Houston Texans for the lead in the AFC South. Many fans will look back to Frank Reich’s aggressive play calling in overtime against the Texans in Week 4 and question whether he made the right decision.

Here’s some advice, don’t do that. Don’t fall into that trap.

Why? Because no one knows how the end of that game would have played out had Reich decided to punt instead. The Texans could have blocked the kick or returned the punt for a TD. They could have gotten a long gain to Hopkins to set up the game winning field goal anyway. They could have pulled a miracle play like we saw in Miami that the Dolphins used to beat the Patriots.

The Steelers used a similar play last week with 14 seconds remaining to put themselves in position to tie the game but missed the kick. Houston would have had about 17 seconds remaining if Reich punted. There’s literally no way of knowing with absolute certainty that Week 4 would have ended in a tie had Reich punted. And let’s not forget, if the Colts had converted, everyone would be talking about how great a call it was and laud Reich for his aggressiveness.

What we do know is the locker room loved the call. Former players loved that call. Reich explained that he trusted his players to make a play. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. That time it didn’t. But the most important thing is the players believe in Frank Reich and he believes in them.

In the very next week, the Texans again went to overtime. The Dallas Cowboys had the ball, 4th and 1, at the Houston 42 yard line. Instead of going for it with one of the better running backs in the league, Ezekiel Elliott, Jason Garrett punted. Houston won the game.

Yes, the time remaining was different. But as a Colts fan, would you rather have a conservative coach like Garrett that doesn’t believe his players can get a single yard or would you rather have Frank Reich who trusts his players to make plays? Reich is the obvious choice. One could argue it was more important for Frank Reich to solidify his locker room in that moment, which it did.

There is some concern that Reich now feels he must be aggressive in those situations, like he was in the Jacksonville game. However, the only call I questioned at the time was going for it at the Jacksonville 31 yard line. Going for it on 4th and 1 at the Jacksonville 1-yard line was fine in my book. Their offense was struggling so making them drive 99 yards would have been tough for them.

Another issue with hindsight bias is it causes one to overemphasize the importance of a single moment. Fans focus on that failed conversion attempt against Houston as the reason the Colts lost that game but few remember Ka’imi Fairbairn missed the field goal. However, Reich called time out and gave Houston another chance, which Fairbairn made.

Fans also overemphasize the importance of a single game over the course of a 16 game season. Yes, the loss to the Texans in Week 4 hurt. However, if we’re focusing on a single play, let’s take a look down memory lane to one play in several games that had they gone differently, the Colts would be in a very different position.

Week 1: Jack Doyle fumbling against the Cincinnati Bengals cost the Colts an opportunity to win the game. Doyle is a six year veteran and has four total fumbles in his career. The guy is one of the more reliable players on the team. It was a fluke. Had Doyle just gone down instead of pushing for extra yardage, the Colts would likely be only a game back of Houston.

Week 3: During the Eagles final touchdown drive, which was 17 plays and lasted an incredible 11:19, another single play happened that may have changed the game. With the Colts up 16-13, on 3rd and 9 Nelson Agholor caught a pass and clearly stepped out of bounds two yards short of the first down. That would have put them at 4th and 2 at the Colts 28 yard line with about 5 minutes left. The Eagles likely kick that field goal or the Colts defense would at least get the opportunity to stop them on 4th down.

Week 4: We’ve talked about the 4th down call ad nauseam. However, on the Colts’ first possession in overtime, Marcus Johnson had a ball hit him in the numbers on a 3rd and 2 at the Houston 25 but dropped it. Had he made that play, the Colts possibly score a touchdown and end the game.

Week 5: The Colts went down 31-17 but were moving the ball with ease against the Patriots. Zach Pascal bobbled a pass from Andrew Luck and it got intercepted. The next play, Sony Michel scored a touchdown. That’s potentially a 14 point turn around so instead of it being 38-17, it could have been 31-24. The Colts defense forced a three and out on the Patriots’ next possession. The offense went down and scored, which would have tied the game 31-31.

Admittedly, that last one is a stretch but you catch my drift. In any game, there’s one play that can make a difference. The Colts were unlucky quite often early in the season when it came to those one plays.

To the contrary, Houston has been incredibly lucky all season. They got a reprieve against the Colts in Week 4. In Week 5, the Cowboys didn’t go for it on 4th down despite Elliott running for almost 3 yard per carry that game. In Week 6, they got a pick 6 with 1:24 remaining against the Bills.

In Week 9, Vance Joseph decided, with 43 seconds remaining and at least one timeout, to settle for a 51 yard field goal with a struggling kicker rather than get closer for a much easier kick. In Week 11, Houston got a 100 yard pick 6 against Washington and broke Alex Smith’s leg but still almost lost with a long field goal that fell short. In at least five games during their 9 game win streak, the ball kept bouncing in Houston’s favor. That’s incredible.

The fact is the Colts weren’t lucky early and Houston has been incredibly lucky all season. One shouldn’t focus on the 4th down call against Houston as the main reason the Colts aren’t winning the division.

The other problem with hindsight bias is it clouds your view of the overall picture. The Colts weren’t expected by many to be in playoff contention, let alone the division title, this year. Even if the Colts had won in Week 4, they’d still be a game behind the Texans with them playing the New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and Jaguars in the final three weeks. There’s no guarantee they lose any of those games and they’d need to lose at least one. The Colts finish the season with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Tennessee Titans and would need to win out.

Will it be amazing if the Colts make the playoffs? Abso-freaking-lutely.

Do they still have a chance to make the playoffs? Yes and it’s actually better than you might think.

If the Colts win out and if either the Baltimore Ravens or Pittsburgh Steelers lose one more game, the Colts are in. Baltimore hosts the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15 and Cleveland Browns in Week 17 but play at the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16. Pittsburgh’s schedule is markedly more difficult. They host the New England Patriots in Week 15 and Cincinnati Bengals Week 17 but go on the road to play the New Orleans Saints in Week 16. Both teams have some difficult games coming up and could easily lose at least one game so don’t count the Colts out based solely on the Week 4 loss to Houston.

If the Colts do make the playoffs, they will be a tough out and have a legitimate shot to make it to the Super Bowl. There doesn’t seem to be any juggernaut in the AFC that can’t be beaten. The Colts have a top 5 quarterback with a top offensive line and a fast defense that forces turnovers. That’s a recipe for success in January. Add on they’ll likely have won at least 8 of their last 10 games, more likely on a 4 game win streak, and teams won’t want to face the Colts in the playoffs.

Everything the Colts are doing this year is icing on the cake. Chris Ballard is building this team the right way. Fans should be excited about the future of the franchise and stop falling into the trap of hindsight bias. We can’t change what happened. We don’t know whether the Colts would have tied Houston if Reich had punted. We should stop worrying about the things we cannot change and enjoy the ride that is the Colts bright future.