The New England Patriots Win Because They Actually Heed Science
The New England Patriots quite predictably kicked off their 2018 National Football League campaign with a win on Sunday. As the victories add up, they're sure to make this year their 18th winning season in a row, a success almost certainly followed by yet another trip to the playoffs (their tenth in a row), and subsequently followed by an extended run in the postseason. One has to wonder if this all-too-predictable plot ever gets boring for Patriots fans...
For everyone else, it's easy to despise the Patriots for their success, their aura of smugness, and for Tom Brady's repeated peddling of pseudoscientific BS. There's one thing the team should be admired for, however: they win because they actually heed science's findings about football.
Football is a game steeped in tradition, and for coaches and general managers, relying on game sense and intuition has long been the norm. But these vague abilities are easily influenced by myth, anecdotes, and cognitive bias. Hard data provides far better guidance. The Patriots seem to recognize this, and fill their organization with numbers wonks who actually act on what evidence tells them.
This wise strategy begins before the season even begins, with who the Patriots select to be on their team in the NFL draft. Unlike many other teams, which pursue prized players like puzzle pieces and sometimes trade away multiple players and draft picks to get them, the Patriots tend to diversify. Like investors putting their money into a range of stocks rather than going for broke on a couple, the Patriots regularly trade away their higher picks in the first round for more selections in the 2nd and 3rd rounds (there are seven rounds in total.) This is right in line with what economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler found in a study they published back in 2005. The duo showed that players selected in the first round receive outsized salaries for what they actually accomplish. At the same time, players in the second and third rounds tend to be paid much less but still perform nearly as well on the playing field.
"There are one or two teams out there that philosophically follow this idea," Massey told Vox. "But in my experience, teams always say they're on board with it in January. Then when April rolls around, and they've been preparing for the draft for a long time, they fall in love with players, get more and more confident in their analysis, and fall back into the same patterns."
Over the past fifteen seasons, the Patriots have selected 39 players in the second and third rounds of the NFL Draft, more than any other team in their conference. Over that timespan, their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins, the New York Jets, and the Buffalo Bills, have respectively selected 31, 24, and 28 second- or third-rounders. Perhaps that's why the Patriots have dominated them year after year?
The Patriots' numbers savvy plays out in other ways as well. For example, under longtime coach Bill Belichick, they've almost exclusively employed left-footed punters. This may seem strange at first glance, but it makes a ton of sense when you consider statistics compiled by Sports Illustrated:
"Over the past five years, a sample size of more than 12,000 punts, 3.1% of left-footed punts have been muffed [dropped] compared to 2.5% of right-footed punts."
A muffed punt can easily result in a turnover, which can have a seismic shift on a single game. An extra one or two turnovers a season could easily translate to one or two extra wins. In a sixteen-game season, that's huge.
Belichick is also noted for "going for it" on fourth down, a strategy which probably seems foolish to most fans of football. If not in field goal range, coaches often choose to punt the ball to the opposing team, even if they only need a few yards for the first down. But when UC-Berkeley economist David Romer crunched the numbers, he found that teams are almost always better off "going for it" on fourth down if the distance required is four yards or less. Odds are they'll make the first down, an outcome vastly preferable to voluntarily surrendering the ball.
Merrimack College compiled a list of other data-backed actions the Patriots take, like trading fourth or fifth round draft picks for proven veterans, cutting older, more expensive players, and rotating their running backs rather than invest in a single elite ball carrier.
These evidence-based actions may all seem boring and inconsequential, but when taken in tandem they might just explain the Patriots' enduring success.