If Football Teams Heeded Science and Reason, They Would Win a Lot More Games
The football field is hallowed ground in American sports culture. It's a place where legends are forged and everlasting memories are made, where timeless tradition is honored and kept. But alas, this reverence to convention is not always rational. There are a number of accepted actions that football teams take that may actually be detrimental to their performance.
One is about as common as they come: punting. Football teams are afforded four downs to travel ten yards. If they surpass that distance, they are awarded another set of set downs. If they don't, then they turn the ball over to their opponents. But overwhelmingly, if teams do not travel the ten-yard distance in only three tries, they elect to punt the ball to their opponents, effectively surrendering their final try in order to move their opponents father away from the end zone, where points are scored.
Punting is an everyday tactic. In fact, do the math and you'll find that punters are paid, on average, tens of thousands of dollars for every appearance they make. But in 2002, economist David Romer at UC-Berkeley studied National Football League (NFL) games and punt data between 1998 and 2000, and found that teams would almost always be better off "going for it" on fourth down if the distance to-go was four yards or less.
"Even on its own 10-yard-line -- 90 yards from the end zone -- a team within three yards of a first down is marginally better off, on average, going for it," ESPN's Greg Garber reported.
When Romer updated his data through 2004, the conclusion only solidified. Punting was often a mistake, such a big one, in fact, that it might be costing teams who regularly do it an average of one and a half wins per year! In a sixteen game season, where a swing of two wins can make the difference between the postseason and the offseason, that's huge!
In his analysis, Romer also found that teams would be far better off forgoing field goals on fourth down when within five yards of the end zone. Football fans are well aware that coaches often elect the more conservative route of an almost-assured three points, but a more exciting "do or die" approach is actually supported by statistics.
Scientists like Romer have also scrutinized commonsense actions off the field. The most notable instance pertains to the NFL Draft. Each year, all thirty-two teams get to choose new players in a grown-up recess spectacle spanning seven rounds. The team with the worst record the preceding year gets to pick first, the team with the second-worst record gets to pick second, and so on and so forth. First round players are by far the most coveted, especially players considered in the top ten. So alluring is their supposed value that teams will trade a great deal of their picks in the later rounds for picks in the first round.
But when economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler analyzed the value of drafted players from a cost and performance standpoint, they found that players in the later rounds offered -- by far and away -- much better bang for the buck!
"The implication of Thaler and Massey's work is that teams should trade away their first-round picks. They should stockpile players in the second and third rounds, who can be paid a lot less and are nearly as good. This is how you build a winning football team," author Malcolm Gladwell summarized on a recent episode of This American Life.
"Indeed, the irony of our results is that the supposed benefit bestowed on the worst team in the league, the right to pick first in the draft, is really not a benefit at all, unless the team trades it away. The first pick in the draft is the loser’s curse," Massey and Thaler wrote.
Massey, Thaler, and Romer's works have been known for more than a decade, but NFL football coaches and owners still show near universal hesitance to adopt their advice. For all its high stakes, pro football is very much a conservative sport. Tradition trumps reason. Football is powerful, irrational, and instinctual, with an almost animal magnetism. Perhaps that's what keeps us watching.