Do football coaches maximize returns?

by on May 4, 2006 at 7:28 am in Sports | Permalink

David Romer says no:

…the behavior of National Football League teams on fourth downs departs from the behavior that would maximize their chances of winning in a way that is highly systematic, clear-cut, and statistically significant.  This is true even though the decisions are comparatively simple, the possibilities for learning and imitation are unusually large, the compensation for the coaches who make the decisions is extremely high, and the market for their services is intensely competitive…The departures from win maximization are toward "conservative" behavior…

In other words, too many punts and field goal attempts.  But why?

…the natural possibility is that the actors care not just about winning and losing, but about the probability of winning during the game, and that they are risk-averse over this probability.  That is, they may value decreases in the chances of winning from failed gambles and increases from successful gambles asymmetrically.

If you take a gamble and it fails, and you have lost for good, it hurts so so bad.  Coaches value "being in the game until the end" for its own sake.  They are unwilling to give up all sources of hope, even when the associated gamble would maximize their returns.

What does this say about how we run our lives?

That is from the just-arrived April 2006 Journal of Political Economy (I’m sorry Alex, but the JPE is better and more interesting than the QJE, all things considered).  Here is an earlier version of the paper.  Here is my earlier post on the NFL draft.

Lace Anderson May 4, 2006 at 8:02 am

Nice article.

Perhaps “being in the game until the end” is the true value? More exciting games, closer, more fans, better ratings, more talked about. If it’s a clear win or loss early in the game, people tune out.

Then again, did anyone ever get fired for winning too many too easily?

Carl May 4, 2006 at 11:21 am

Gregg Easterbrook in his long-running Tuesday Morning Quarterback column has harped on this point for several years. His conjecture is that coaches are trying to minimize their margin of defeat for job security. It’s a lot easier to rationalize a loss by 10 points than a blowout by 30, even if the latter occurs because of an all-out attempt at victory. He also points out the exception of Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, who is not coincidentally also one of the most successful coaches.

Robert Schwartz May 4, 2006 at 11:56 am

Yet another reason, as if anymore were needed, to hate the NFL.

DK May 4, 2006 at 12:16 pm

This was once called the “no one gets fired for choosing IBM” rule.

Patrick R. Sullivan May 4, 2006 at 12:54 pm

Bill Belichik has a degree in economics, and is probably the best at managing salary cap issues in the NFL.

However, there was once a head coach who did make decisions based on probability. He was the Seattle Seahawks first head coach from 1977 to 1982. He took a woeful expansion team (2-12 in ’77) to 9-7, and challenge for the playoffs, in his third year.

By going for it on 4th and one in his own territory in the first quarter, using numerous fake punts and field goals, and automatic onside kicks if his kicker saw the receiving teams front line cheat by retreating early to form a wedge for the return. He would have warmed the cockles of TMQ’s heart.

Almost no one understood his tactics as far as I could tell–Howard Cosell once called him a ‘fun coach’–except for former Redskins coach George Allen. Who, doing color commentary for one of the Seahawk games, corrected his play-by-play partner for castigating Patera after a fake FG resulted in an incomplete pass from holder Jim Zorn to PK Efren Herrera: ‘Jack sees the strength of his team as his offense and he wants to have it on the field as much as possible.’

He eventually got fired during one of the NFL strikes and retired from coaching.

cure May 4, 2006 at 5:04 pm

Interesting fact: There are “competitive” Madden videogame football players (that is, they play professionally). The number of onside kicks, two-point tries and fourth-down attempts is way higher. The reason, I would imagine, is the same given above: no one would “fire” them for unconventional play.

kyle n May 4, 2006 at 7:45 pm

This adresses a sore spot for me, I love football, but absolutely HATE conservative, lackluster football. I want to see teams go for it on fourth down when its only a few inches. Every time!
After all, its entertainment.
BTW Spurrier, is always interesting to watch, even when he dosent win.

Steve Sailer May 5, 2006 at 4:02 am

For a more detailed explanation of why Romer’s use of third down data to extrapolate to fourth downs gives such absurd recommendations as going for it on fourth and two on your _own_ ten yard line, see:

http://isteve.blogspot.com/2006/05/whats-worse-than-freakonomics-pseudo.html

jult52 May 5, 2006 at 7:43 am

“Decisions to go for it on fourth down (that is, not to kick) are sufficiently rare, however, that they cannot be used to estimate the value of trying for a first down or touchdown. I therefore use the outcomes of third down
plays instead.”

I have to dispute the rarity of fourth-down attempts, too. They aren’t common, but with `270 games per season, I’d guess there’d a sample of at least a 1000 4th-down attempts from just this decade (and probably more).

The harrummphing from some of the posters above is just pathetic, especially given the flaws in the study. Can we just in the future assume that famous head coaches who make millions of dollars a year in a glamorous profession are highly intelligent and have in-depth professional knowledge of their job?

Gabriel Kaplan May 5, 2006 at 12:52 pm

I would also point out that Belichick majored in economics at Wesleyan and seems to have absorbed most of the lessons.

BillWallace May 5, 2006 at 5:28 pm

“Can we just in the future assume that famous head coaches who make millions of dollars a year in a glamorous profession are highly intelligent and have in-depth professional knowledge of their job?”

Of course we COULD assume that. We could also assume that politicians always act in the best interests of their constituants becuase they have to answer to them in the next election. Of course we would be WRONG.

Football coaches are experts in their field for the vast majority of the tasks they have to perform. Choosing when to go for it is not one of them.

re: “conservative play may have to do… with team psychology during a game”
This is a common excuse given, but I don’t believe it holds water. I remember, but don’t have a link, that there was a study showing that the success rate of drives that start after the previous team failed on a 4th down conversion (removing desperation attempts) is actually slightly lower than normal, though not statistically significant.

As far as the psychology, it can be argued just as easily that a coach is showing faith and confidence in his team and defense by selecting the “riskier” play. And there are some common situations that also preclude the psychology explanation. For example at the end of a game. In the last NFL season there were a couple situations where a team could kick a near certain FG and go to overtime, or try for a touchdown to win. Overtime is close to 50-50 no matter how you slice it, and a Fourth and 1 is statistically around 70% on average, or at least definitely greater than 50%, making the touchdown attempt the obvious best solution. But when the coaches chose to go for it, they were hailed as geniuses, as if they had solved a great puzzle. Some coaches in the past have kicked field goals in these situations.

Steve Sailer May 6, 2006 at 12:50 am

I think the fairly favorable reception this uselessly flawed study, which absurdly claims you should be indifferent between punting and going for it on fourth and three from your _own_ 10 yard line, has gotten from other economists points out the dangers in the currently fashionable fad for “freakonomic” analyses of seemingly trivial topics like this.

Economists need to avoid being smug about their presumed analytical superiority when condescending to offer advice on topics outside the traditional bounds of their field. It may well turn out that Romer is right that NFL coaches are too risk averse — that’s my impression as well — but J. Goard’s short analysis in the Comments above is probably more useful than Romer’s entire analysis.

Steve Sailer May 6, 2006 at 4:57 pm

What Romer should do is take his calculations and say, “All right, I admit it, I don’t know anything about the chance of making a first down on 4th down. Obviously, my methodology of looking at 3rd down plays is useless for understanding the chances of making it on 4th down, except probably near the goal line. However, here are the expected return in all situations of making it versus not making it. Then, you football coaches should take _your_ estimates of the percentage chance of making it on different 4th down situations, which are obviously better than mine, and multiply it by my estimate of the returns of making it, which are pretty good, and the combined result of our efforts will be useful information.”

If Romer really wants to continue to argue that teams should go for it on 4th and 2 on their own ten yard line, there is a source of data available. There are inner city high school football teams that seldom punt or try field goals because they can’t persuade players to specialize in kicking. Romer could study them. My impression is that lacking a punter is a huge problem, but I could be wrong.

Steve Sailer May 7, 2006 at 1:54 am

Dear BillWallace: No, I meant the opposite — the defense has to defend more against the long gain on lower downs, so they are less likely to stop a short play for the first down than they are on fourth down. For example, assume it is second and one inch. Then the offense has lots of rational options ranging from a quarterback sneak for the first down to the bomb for a touchdown. So, the defense has to cover the whole field, rather than stack up the line of scrimmage, meaning that a conservative inside rush for a first down on second and one inch is almost a sure thing. Same with, although to a lesser extent, third down and one inch. You can try a long pass and if you fail, then, on fourth down and one inch, you can still run a quarterback sneak or try a field goal or punt.

Close to your opponents’ goal line, however, Romer’s methodology makes more sense. When your are on your opponent’s one inch line, it almost doesn’t matter what down it is: the defense will put all its men on the line of scrimmage in any case.

This shows the value of simple reality checks. It’s been my observation ever since the 1999 unveiling of the Levitt-Donohue theory that legalizing abortion cut crime that economists’ get over-impressed with each other’s complex models and undervalue simple reality checks.

I pointed out to Levitt in Slate that he forgot to do the obvious reality check of seeing whether the violent crime rate fell among those born right after the legalization of abortion. Instead, the homicide rate of 14-17 year old youths born in the later 1970s grew catastrophically. Finally in 2005, Foote and Goetz showed that Levitt had made two fatal errors in his complex state-level model that were the source of his positive finding, a humiliation Levitt could have avoided if he had done some simple reality checks initially.

ed May 7, 2006 at 12:25 pm

If you just look at the Romer paper (starting at the bottom of page 20), he spends two whole pages examinging both (1) why we would or would not expect 3rd down to be different from 4th, and (2) what we actually see when we compare observed 3rd vs. 4th down plays. Both point to the idea that 3rd and 4th don’t seem too different.

Bill Waddell May 9, 2006 at 4:23 pm

Mostly what it says is that 4th down situations in football games are poor analogies to life or economics.

Anonymous October 14, 2008 at 1:33 am
HaylieIdida March 7, 2011 at 2:52 am

I think all coaches should be able to estimate the risks of winning or losing. But this should not become an universal rule. For instance if I buy tennis tickets I wouldn’t want to know which player is in a better form or if the game will last shortly. I think this is the fun of games: to not know what are the odds.

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