By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, November 5, 2007
With just over five minutes to play in yesterday's game against the New York Jets, the Washington Redskins found themselves on their own 23-yard line facing a fourth and one. The team, which was ahead by just three points, elected to do what teams normally do in such situations: They played it safe and punted rather than try to keep the drive alive.
The Jets promptly came back to kick a field goal, tying the game and sending it into overtime. While this particular story had a happy ending for Washington, which won, 23-20, it illustrated the value of an analysis by David Romer, an economist at the University of California, who has concluded that football teams are far too conservative in play calling in fourth-down situations.
You don't have to be particularly interested in sports to find Romer's conclusion intriguing: His hunch about human behavior in general was that although people say they have a certain goal and are willing to do everything they can to achieve it, their actual behavior regularly departs from the optimal path to reach that goal.
In his analysis of football teams, Romer specifically looked at a single question -- whether teams should punt or kick the football on fourth down, or take a chance and run or throw the ball. Romer's calculations don't necessarily tell teams what to do in specific situations such as yesterday's game. But on average, teams that take the risk seem to win more often than lose.
Data from a large number of NFL games show that coaches rarely follow what Romer's calculations predict would give them the best chance of victory. While fans often suggest more aggressive play calling, even fans usually don't go as far as the economist does -- his calculations show that teams should regularly be going for it on fourth down, even if it is early in the game, even if the score is tied, and even if the ball is on their own side of the field.
Romer's calculations have been backed up by independent analyses. Coaches have not raised a serious challenge to Romer's analysis, but they have simply ignored his finding.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is among those who has said he agrees with Romer, and Belichick happens to be one of the more successful coaches in the league. Two Sundays ago, as the Patriots were piling up an astronomical score against Washington, Belichick took a chance on a fourth-down play and got his team seven points instead of the three he might have gotten had the team tried a field goal.
When asked by reporters why he took the chance, Belichick's response was the response of someone who really means what he says about maximizing points: "What do you want us to do, kick a field goal?"
Owners and fans have been receptive to Romer's ideas. However, in informal conversations Romer has had with the coaching staffs of various teams, the economist said he has been told to mind his own business in the ivory tower.
Indeed, since Romer wrote his paper a couple of years ago, NFL coaches seem to have gotten even more conservative in their play calling, which the economist attributes to their unwillingness to follow the advice of an academic, however useful it might be.
"It used to be that going for it on fourth down was the macho thing to do," Romer said. But after his findings were widely publicized in sports circles, he said: "Now going for it on fourth down is the egghead thing to do. Would you rather be macho or an egghead?"
The interesting question raised by Romer's research applies to a range of settings that have nothing to do with sports. Why do coaches persist in doing something that is less than optimal, when they say their only goal is to win? One theory that Romer has heard is that coaches -- like generals, stock fund directors and managers in general -- actually have different goals than the people they lead and the people they must answer to. Everyone wants to win, but managers are held to different standards than followers when they lose, especially when they lose after trying something that few others are doing.
Wayne Stewart, an associate professor of management at Clemson University, said his own research backs up the idea that owners and managers in general have different approaches to risk. While owners tend to be entrepreneurial and focused on outcomes, he said, managers are often principally focused on not screwing up.
Stewart said this might explain why coaches' approach to risk diverges from that of owners and fans, who are principally interested in outcomes. Stewart said successful managers understand that the fear of failure is itself often the principal cause of failure.