Far Afield: Challenging the status quo

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

With numbers, if not words, economists call football coaches wimps. Their calculations indicate that punts and field goals on fourth down are acts of surrender to misguided conformity, statistical risks under the guise of prudence. An economist might say it more like, “Examination of actual decisions shows systematic, clear-cut and overwhelmingly statistically significant departures from the decisions that would maximize teams’ chances of winning.” Which is the academic equivalent of taunting.

Cal-Berkeley’s David Romer — the trash-talker above — analyzed fourth-down calls in more than 700 NFL games. He found 1,068 situations when truly playing the percentages would have meant going for it instead of punting. Almost 90 percent of the time, those teams punted anyway. Many field goals also aren’t worth their three points. The reasons are complex and the probabilities vary based on field position and distance from a first down, but basically: sacrificing a potential touchdown or pushing an opponent back with a punt often has a net negative effect on a team’s chances to win compared to the risk-reward of going for it.

So why don’t more coaches do it? Public opinion and professional acceptance. “Break with the pack on such a conspicuous decision and you don’t merely improve your chances of winning,” Moneyball author Michael Lewis wrote for ESPN. “You insult all coaches who do things the old-fashioned way. It may be excellent football strategy, but it’s a risky career move.”

Romer’s work has been around for a while; most NFL coaches know it. New England’s Bill Belichick admitted reading his paper, “Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Professional Football” (perhaps hidden behind a playbook), but the general reception has been silence or outright dismissal. Last fall, Romer told The New York Times that nobody associated with the league had ever contacted him about his research.

One “mad scientist” trusts statistics over tradition. An Arkansas high school coach profiled in the recent book Scorecasting has taken the go-for-it mentality to an extreme. Kevin Kelley’s Pulaski Academy team has gone years without punting or attempting field goals, regardless of the circumstances. Deep in their own territory on fourth-and-forever, the Bruins go for it. Success insulates Kelley — fans appreciate anything that produces a 77-17-1 record and two state titles — but he would do it anyway because he believes it’s all science, a hypothesis proven in literal field research, and no madness.

Scorecasting authors Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim acknowledge that “it’s up for debate whether Kelley’s operating principles would work in all cases, for all teams, on all levels.” With the combination of statistical support and Kelley’s success, though, it’s surprising more coaches don’t show an interest. One prominent college coach, Scorecasting reports, visited Pulaski Academy to study his tactics — Kelley wouldn’t identify him — but never put them into practice.

Some have dipped a toe into the pool. Belichick, no maverick, goes for it on fourth down more than any other NFL coach. It’s not just that he studies the numbers, the Scorecasting authors argue. It’s three Super Bowl rings and the sheen of brilliance they bring. His job and reputation are safe. He has less to lose, which gives him the luxury to make unorthodox decisions. Less-accomplished coaches (like Belichick himself back in his dismal Cleveland days) seldom take that risk.

In 2009 Belichick discovered that even multiple championships don’t grant much benefit of the doubt. A fourth-and-two attempt failed late in a game at Indianapolis, leading to a notorious New England defeat. Belichick’s long history of exhaustive preparation and sober calculation could not muffle the braying. Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com captured the general sentiment, referring to the decision as, “fourth-and-jackass.”

Belichick was playing the percentages, simple as that. In that situation, the percentages just happened to be in direct opposition to the perception. According to the Scorecasting calculations, “going for it gave the Patriots an 81 percent chance to win versus a 72 percent chance if they punted.”

Kelley rattles off numbers like those, but he’s a football coach at heart, not a bloodless statistician. He’s convinced the emotional impact of his philosophy is what adds up to winning — an outcome, coaches and economists would agree, that maximizes utility.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.