Jocks don’t trust geeks?!

This is why I don’t believe people who claim that overcoming one’s biases isn’t important. David Romer gives a football coach solid evidence that he could win more games by running or passing on fourth down and what happens?

“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?”

Yeah, they STOP running and passing because that would be the ‘geeky’ thing to do! Now that’s an example of a seriously costly bias if ever I heard one.

The article quotes Wayne Stewart, an associate professor of management at Clemson University, describing this as a principal-agent problem: the team owner wants to win games but the coach just wants to avoid risky plays that might make him look bad. Or geeky plays that might get him a ribbing at the bar after the game, apparently.

5 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    Dirty old agency problem. So what mechanism should we put in place to solve the agency problem between the fans and the coach? I suggest basing their salary solely on the number of wins 😉

  2. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    Well, how many professional franchises are listed on the stock exchange these days? You could just give the coaches options, I guess. i think the only problem with wins is adjusting for the quality of the players. Perhaps they could be paid bonuses for improving the win ratio relative to the previous season or something.

  3. Kimble
    Kimble says:

    The geek doesn’t understand modern footbawl!

    Possession is EVERYTHING in football. A turnover is golden. A turnover with good field position is platinum.

    He is asking them to make the higher variance play, even in situations where the turnover would be fatal (turnover in your own half with the scores tied). They probably arent making the play less because a geek suggested it was the statistically correct one. They are making it less because there is more at stake than there was several years ago.

    There may be one scientifically determined best-play, but is the science taking into consideration fan disappointment? If a coach or a QB calls a running play on the 4th down, their decision making is called into question. Is it taking into consideration loss of confidence in the QB? (Which can cripple any team.)

    Is it taking into consideration the players bonus structure? Is the running back going to miss his season bonus if he turns the ball over too much? (Dont underestimate the complexity of the reward structure in a professional sports team.)

    The benefit of playing this more agressive, higher variance, style will come through over the course of a season or a career. In this respect, they are indistinguishable from a number of other things that got you to the Superbowl. Was it the more aggressive 4th down play that got you there? Or was it the 0.02 increase in the reaction time of your QB?

    But if you balls up the 4th down play, the penalties are very easy to see.

    Incremental gain vs catastrophic loss.

  4. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    Well, I definitely don’t understand modern football: I don’t even know what a fourth down is 😛

    I agree that there’s probably a lot of behavioural psychology type stuff going on in the reactions of people to losing a game at the last minute. There’s a lot of loss aversion in the decisions made on fourth down, no doubt. However, if something pays off over the course of a season and the players’ incentives don’t encourage it then surely the incentives are wrong.

  5. Kimble
    Kimble says:

    4th down plays work because of their rarity; people arent expecting you to try something so stupid. All the study probably suggests is that there is an advantage in doing something the opposition doesnt expect.

    Would it pay off in the long run? How long would it take the very sophisticated defensive strategies to adjust to this new tactic? They are the reason 4th down plays are becoming rarer.

    Thinking about it, I dont think it would be a permanent advantage. It may not even last the season. You might get a few small gains out of it, but when it comes to the ‘money’ games at the end of the season, it is probably suicide.

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