Rational Irrationality in Professional Football

A few years ago David Romer – and economist at UC Berkeley – posted a paper on-line examining the decisions NFL coaches made on fourth down. Romer’s paper [Do Firms Maximize? Evidence From Professional Football], which has since been published in The Journal of Political Economy (April, 2006), found via an examination of expected benefits and costs that NFL coaches were not making optimal decisions. Specifically, NFL teams should be going for it more often on fourth down, rather than punt or attempt field goals.

In the December 18 issue of ESPN the Magazine, Michael Lewis – author of Moneyball and The Blind Side – examines the reaction to this article in the NFL. Since this article has been brought to the attention of decision-makers in the NFL Lewis finds that coaches are actually going for it less often on fourth down. In 2001 the average team went for it on fourth down 15.1 times per season. In 2005 the average team only went for it 14.5 times. So NFL coaches are told by Romer that it makes more sense to go for it more frequently on fourth down, and the response is to go for it a bit less often. What explains this reaction?

Lewis first asks if Romer is simply wrong, but concludes that this is not the case (and I agree). Lewis also wonders if NFL coaches simply can’t understand the complexity of Romer’s argument. This is a possibility, but Lewis argues the coaches are more than capable of understanding complex arguments. After all, just running an NFL team – as anyone associated with the Detroit Lions has learned in recent years – is quite complex and difficult.

No, Lewis thinks Romer is right and NFL coaches understand his arguments. For Lewis, the reason why coaches fail to heed Romer’s wisdom is that coaches do not wish to undermine their reputation in the coaching fraternity. As Lewis puts it “Go for it on fourth down more often than any other coach, and you not only set yourself apart from your peers, but you call into question their intelligence. If your decision doesn’t pay off – if you go for it routinely and your team fails – you’ll stand accused of malpractice.”

Let’s say you are a new head coach and you believe what Romer is saying. So faced with fourth down you frequently try for the first down. But Romer is not saying you will always succeed. It’s possible that you will follow this strategy and your team will frequently fail. This is especially true if you have a bad team, which rookie head coaches are often given.

As you fail on fourth down you lose more often. Other coaches look at your decision-making and conclude that your team is not just losing because you lack playing talent, but also because you as a coach are not making the decisions that will put your team in the best possible position to win.

When a head coach is hired he begins counting the days until he is ultimately fired. When the head coach is fired, he typically is hired by another head coach to serve on his staff. But if you have demonstrated that you make decisions contrary to the league’s conventional wisdom, you jeopardize your future employment. Consequently it might be rational for a head coach to lower his chances to win today – by not following Romer’s advice – so the can further his chances of gaining employment in the future. In sum, it might be rational across time to be a bit irrational on game day.

Aaron Schatz and Jim Armstrong of FootballOutsiders.com in the same issue of ESPN the Magazine looked at how the fourth down decision varied across head coaches from 1997 to the 12th week of 2006. They found that Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer, and Mike Shanahan were most likely to go for it on fourth down. Nick Saban, Sean Payton, Gary Kubiak, Rod Marinelli, and Scott Linehan were the least likely to go for it. The first group includes coaches who have won the Super Bowl, or in the case of Schottenheimer, had a long history of success. The latter group was comprised of coaches new to the NFL.

One would expect a coach with an established reputation to be less concerned about flouting conventional wisdom. Younger coaches, though, are far less secure in their futures. Consequently it may be most rational for these coaches to be the most conservative on a team’s most conspicuous decision.

To test this idea one should look at the decisions of Parcells, Belichick, Cowher, Schottenheimer, and Shanahan before each found success in the NFL. Were these coaches more conservative when they were younger? I would expect that we will find a statistical relationship between coaching tenure and going for it on fourth down.

Of course, some will argue that these coaches are successful because they often heed the advice of Romer. In other words, these coaches became successful by taking risks. This may indeed be true. But if that is the case, then we are once again faced with the puzzle: Why don’t coaches go for it on fourth down more often?

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