Why Do NFL Coaches Do Silly Things?

Whenever I watch a football game, I can’t help but cringe when I see teams on their opponents 1 yard line kicking field goals instead of going for the touchdown.  There are other times when I see the coaches making clearly wrong moves (I am not terribly knowledgeable about football either) and I wonder why they don’t make the mathematically correct play.  These guys are working 18 hour days during the season, to prepare their team, how do they miss the easy ones?

Over the past few years there have been some incredibly smart people who have broken down football(as well as other sports), in a way similar to Billy Beane in Moneyball, in order to determine what the correct play is in different situations.  For example, having 4th down and 1 on your opponents 40 yard line is worth a certain number of points (on average over a large number of trials) .  This is based on field position of success, as well as potential field position if you fail (the number can be negative too, think about 4th and 10 on your own 1 yard line). So, if 3rd down and goal on your opponents 1 is worth 4.5 points (I am making up the number) then kicking a field goal for 3 points instead of going for it, is like losing 1.5 points.  Yet this is precisely what you see coaches doing all the time, under the guise of “getting on the board” or some other nonsense.  While there are certainly late game situations to vary from the “correct play” down 7-0 in the first quarter certainly does not qualify.

The result of the analysis done by experts, is that teams should be going for it far more on 4th down then they actually do.  On 4th and short, the breakeven point is somewhere around their own 35 yard line.  So why do most coaches not follow where the math leads them?  Well, I have a few ideas.  The first is that they have been involved in football their entire lives and believe that their experience lets them “know the game” and are therefore resistant to outsiders with new ideas.  The second is that by sticking with the pack and doing what everyone else does, they receive less criticism from management and fans then if they were to “take risks.”  This makes it more likely they will keep their jobs.

I see many similarities to the evolution of poker.  Poker was the same for many, many years until people, mainly young men, began playing for money on the internet.  As a result, with the ability to play many hands simultaneously and a reason(a lot of money) to figure out the best way to play, evolution occurred.  This has led to more betting and raising to take advantage of the “old school” players who have not adapted.  These players have not adapted, in my opinion, because they “know how to play” and are very set in their ways.  By looking at the ages of people at the final table of the World Series of Poker over time, you can see that no limit hold’em is being entirely dominated by younger people.  While not all of the newer breed of younger aggressive players are winners their style is a dominating one over players who play the older more passive style.  There can be no other explanation for the influx of younger players who disproportionately dominate no limit tournaments and cash games.

The herd mentality is dominant at the poker table.  One player talks about how he never reraises AK because it is a “drawing hand” and people not only agree, but start doing it as well(yes, people talk about how they have and will play hands at the table).   If asked why a player plays a hand in a particular way, there answers are no more than superficial and anecdotal(“I remember when I lost a big pot with this hand”).  If they lose a big pot, they are able to get consolation from their neighbor that they “played it the right way.”  Few players stop to think about the reasons behind doing something and its possible outcomes.

So what can be done in football and in poker to counter this?  Well, for starters, you must do work away from the table to figure out what the right answer to the problem is.  You might not be able to figure out the answer exactly, but you learn a lot by trying to get there.  For example, what are the possible outcomes from reraising AK and how does it compare to doing else?  When is it helpful to call instead of raise?  When is it good to fold?These are questions that need to be answered using numbers and scenarios, not “AK is a good hand so I don’t fold.”  Secondly it is necessary to keep asking questions(that require new answers) in order to see if there are different avenues of play you have not explored.  For example, it has come to light that surprise onside kicks are recovered at an enormous rate and should be done more frequently.  Maybe a team will start trying it a bit more than their share.  Maybe analysis will lead to teams fake punting 50% of the time because that is closer to optimal.  You never know what you will find unless you start digging through the data and listening to the answers.

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