Super Bowl Science: Are Football Coaches Irrational?

Studies show that coaches often make poor choices in crucial situations. But one coach may have a secret advantage

Bill Belichick
Studies show most football coaches make poor decisions on fourth down. Does Bill Belichick have a secret advantage? Photo by flickr user Keith Allison

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This Super Bowl Sunday, as you watch grizzled coaches pace the sideline and bark at players, feel free to play armchair quarterback—or even head coach. Despite the hours they spend scouting players, analyzing game tape and drawing up complex tactical schemes, a pair of recent scientific studies indicates that many football coaches are no better at making some in-game decisions than you or I would be.

A 2006 paper by David Romer (pdf), a University of California at Berkeley economist, started things off by looking at a choice frequently encountered by coaches on fourth down: kick a field goal or try for a touchdown? Using data from more than 700 NFL games, Romer calculated the average chance of winning generated by each choice at different positions on the field. He then compared the data to the actual choices made by NFL coaches.

The conclusion: most avoid risk to an irrational extent, often opting to kick a field goal when going for a touchdown would provide a better chance of winning. Why would coaches—with their salaries and job security determined by on-field success—depart from the best possible choice? Romer speculates:

Perhaps the decision makers are systematically imperfect maximizers. Many skills are more important to running a football team than a command of mathematical and statistical tools…thus the decision makers may want to maximize their teams’ chances of winning, but rely on experience and intuition rather than formal analysis.

Another possible interpretation: for job security, coaches may prefer closer losses, coming after seemingly safe decision-making, to blowouts. A 23-0 loss may get a coach fired faster than a 23-6 score, which gives coaches incentive to kicking meaningless field goals rather than going for touchdowns.

Soon after the Romer study, Indiana University scientist Chuck Bower and partners from the business world went one step further. Using a similar dataset of actual NFL games, they built ZEUS: a powerful computer program that can analyze in-game situations on the fly and provide high-volume data analysis to coaches in real time. Bower said:

ZEUS is a valuable addition to a coaching staff’s tools, and one that can provide that elusive edge over the competition. The ZEUS engine is powerful enough to simulate the equivalent of every game played in the history of the NFL in less than a second. ZEUS can objectively assess crucial play-calling decisions with startling accuracy.

Comparing live data from the game with the historical track record of the NFL, ZEUS can indicate the choice that leads to a better chance of winning for a number of situations: not just what to do on fourth down, but whether to accept or decline penalties, attempt onside kicks, or try for two-point conversions.

In designing ZEUS, Bowers’ team drew upon many of the principles used in building computer models for other games—such as backgammon or chess—and applied them to football. “While the physical nature of the game is very different, the situational nature is strikingly similar. A football coach is constantly making decisions with respect to multiple variables: score, field position, down, yards to a first down, etc.,” said Bowers, an expert backgammon player.

NFL head coaches are a notoriously secretive bunch when it comes to strategy, so if anyone is currently using ZEUS, we’d likely not hear about it. But ZEUS’ own analysis indicates that one coach in particular might be using the cutting-edge program: New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, set to coach in his 5th Super Bowl on Sunday.

The evidence? Belichick is famous for his unconventional decision-making, often opting to go for an aggressive play on fourth down when most coaches would punt or kick a field goal. The New York Times “Fifth Down” blog has used ZEUS to evaluate real-world decisions on a number of occasions. And when ZEUS was used to analyze a particularly controversial fourth down call made by Belichick—at the end of a crucial 2010 game against the Indianapolis Colts, he opted to go for it on his own 28-yard line, an unusually aggressive choice—ZEUS surprised many by saying he had, statistically, made the right call. The analysis indicated that, overall, it gave him team the best chance of winning.

Of course, statistical projections are not guarantees. In that case, the decision didn’t work out, and the Patriots lost the game. But if Belichick does have ZEUS on his sideline, it might give him that much better odds of being the winning coach on Sunday.

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