Loss Aversion in the N.F.L.

Football coaches are known for being extraordinarily conservative when it comes to calling a risky play, since a single bad decision, or even a good decision that doesn’t work out, can get you fired. In the jargon of behavioral economics, coaches are “loss-averse”; this concept, pioneered by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, holds that we experience more pain with a loss of x than we experience pleasure with a gain of x. Who experiences loss aversion? Well, just about everyone: day traders; capuchin monkeys; and especially football coaches.

Which is why the last play of yesterday’s Chiefs-Raiders game was so interesting. With five seconds left, Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil had a tough decision to make. His team was trailing by 3 points with the ball inside the Raiders’ 1-yard line. If the Chiefs ran a play and didn’t score, they would likely not have time for another play and would lose. If they kicked the easy field goal, the game would go to overtime — and even though the Chiefs were playing at home, the Raiders had moved the ball easily late in the game and Vermeil, as he would later admit, was scared that the Raiders would win the coin toss in overtime and promptly score, winning the game without the Chiefs ever having a chance.

In retrospect, it wasn’t all that tough of a gamble. Choosing between a) a very significant gain if his team could accomplish the relatively simple act of moving the ball two feet; or b) a shadowy outcome that seemed as likely to end in loss as in victory, Vermeil did what most of us would probably do if we didn’t have several million people peeping over our shoulders, ready to criticize us: he went for the touchdown.

Vermeil sent in a running play, and Larry Johnson dived into the end zone, and the Chiefs won. The cover headline on today’s USA Today: “Chiefs’ Bold Gamble Hits Pay Dirt at Home: Kansas City shocks Oakland with touchdown after forgoing typing field goal on last play of game.”

The fact that Vermeil’s decision became the lead story is one good indicator how rare it is for coaches to take such a risk. Here is what he later told reporters: “Wow! I was scared. I just figured I’m too old to wait. [Vermeil recently turned 69.] “If we had not made it, then you guys would have had a lot of fun with that. It was not an impulsive thing. It was the right thing for us to do.”

Congratulations to Vermeil for making a good choice that turned out well. Here’s hoping a few of his colleagues will be envious enough of the attention he gets for making this wise gamble and follow suit.

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