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+ - Are Football Coaches Mathematically Irrational? 1

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Hugh Pickens writes
Hugh Pickens writes writes "Joseph Stromberg writes in the Smithsonian that economist David Romer used data from more than 700 NFL games to study a choice frequently encountered by football coaches on fourth down: kick a field goal or try for a touchdown? Romer calculated the average chance of winning generated by each choice at different positions on the field and compared the data to the actual choices made by NFL coaches and concluded that most coaches avoid risk to an irrational extent (PDF), often opting to kick a field goal when going for a touchdown would provide a better chance of winning. Soon after the Romer study, Chuck Bower drew upon many of the principles used in building computer models for other games and 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. No football coach has ever admitted to using Zeus but there is evidence that one coach in particular might be utilizing the cutting-edge program: New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, set to coach in his 5th Super Bowl on Sunday. The evidence? Belichick seems to be better than average at making optimal choices in critical play-calling situations and 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. 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 Belichick had, statistically, made the right call. "Of course, statistical projections are not guarantees. In that case, the decision didn’t work out, and the Patriots lost the game," writes Stromberg. "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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Are Football Coaches Mathematically Irrational?

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  • From where to place a penalty kick, to the optimal angle to shoot a basketball (to the optimal path around the baseball diamond), to optimizing player combinations on the basketball court, math or at least statistics knows the answers to sports. The problem is most coaches don't abide by these rules. Why not? If there's an optimal way to do it, why don't coaches jump all over it? Is it ignorance of the numbers, disbelief, or maybe coaches are consciously or unconsciously factoring in variables like momentum

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.

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