Economists Do It With Models

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So *This* Is What Happens When People Actually Listen To Economists, Football Edition…

November 15th, 2013 · 5 Comments
Decision Making · Sports

This is a conversation that I had yesterday with a friend:

Friend: documentary on ESPN right now that’s all you
Me: I only see SportsCenter…what am I missing?
Friend: ESPN 2
high school coach
agh you just missed it
Me: 🙁
found it
all you
Me: um, I was writing about that 5 minutes ago
Friend: someday i’ll tell you something you don’t know
but not today
Me: hehe
Friend: until then
go *redacted* y’self 🙂

I never know whether to pretend that I haven’t seen things before, since I do worry that people will stop sending interesting things my way if they think I already know everything. (Far from it, in reality, so keep the links coming just in case.) It is nice to know, though, that my yelling at the television just about whenever a team punts on fourth down hasn’t gone unnoticed. (In case it’s not immediately obvious that I’m talking about football, there is a fairly nerdy description of the relevant rules in the appendix to the paper referenced below. Also, I recommend getting out more- even Sheldon Cooper knows the basic rules of football.) Why do I do such a thing, you may ask? Because of this:

This paper examines a single, narrow decision—the choice on fourth down in the National Football League between kicking and trying for a first down—as a case study of the standard view that competition in the goods, capital, and labor markets leads firms to make maximizing choices. Play-by-play data and dynamic programming are used to estimate the average payoffs to kicking and trying for a first down under different circumstances. Examination of teams’ actual decisions shows systematic, clear-cut, and overwhelmingly statistically significant departures from the decisions that would maximize teams’ chances of winning. Possible reasons for the departures are considered.

Who knew that David Romer did things that are cooler than writing graduate macroeconomics textbooks? (In fairness, I suppose that marrying Christina Romer is also cooler than writing a graduate macro textbook.) Anyway, the normal person translation of the above abstract is something along the lines of “football teams punt on fourth down far more than they should if their objective is to win football games.”

Recent history has shown that other sports (talking to you, baseball) have embraced the notion of using data analysis to guide decision making, so why haven’t Romer’s findings caught on? Do football coaches know something that he doesn’t? What would happen if Romer’s findings were to be put into practice?

This, apparently:

(You can read more on the subject here.) Hey, who would’ve thought that numbers don’t always lie and can actually tell us useful things and help us make better decisions? Given this, why do so many teams blindly punt on fourth down? (Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy not withstanding, I find it of particular note that the coach stopped punting in 2005, the same year as the date on the Romer paper.) Interestingly enough, the explanation is almost virtually identical to that for herding behavior among mutual fund managers– namely, that people (probably correctly) think they are less likely to get fired if they make mistakes that everyone else makes than they are if they make their own mistakes:

Coaches are afraid. No one wants to be the guy who gets fired because he stopped punting. And the same fans and analysts who clamor for innovation are actually fueling that fear. The mob nearly tarred and feathered Falcons coach Mike Smith when he went for it on fourth-and-inches in overtime against the Saints in 2011. Bill Belichick almost lost his hoodie-wearing privileges after going for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 against the Colts in 2009. San Diego State coach Rocky Long announced before the 2012 season that he might stop punting, then had to field so many questions about it on a weekly basis that he began refusing to discuss his fourth-down plays with the media.

In other words, football doesn’t have a Billy Beane who is basically forced to do something unconventional due to a lack of other options. (Think about it- would we be talking about “moneyball” strategies if the Oakland A’s weren’t cash poor?) Good thing David Romer is a macroeconomist, since that way at least he’s used to organizations not taking his policy advice. =P

Tags: Decision Making · Sports

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff // Nov 15, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Reminds me of the Martin Gardner story of the teacher who told his class, “I will give you a test sometime next week and it will be a surprise.”

    A student reasons, “It can’t be on Friday because I won’t be surprised. But then it can’t be on Thursday either because I already know it can’t be on Friday so Thursday wouldn’t be a surprise. Continuing, he decides the teacher can’t be throwing a surprise test next week and therefore is surprised on Wednesday.”

    I suspect that if the other team knows for sure whether you will punt, they will be able to prepare for it, so it is more profitable to take the “wrong” choice often enough to be surprising.

  • 2 Dennis Shea // Nov 15, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Happy Valley Billieves in 4th down.

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