Are NFL Coaches Starting to Listen to Economists?

Are NFL coaches starting to listen to economists?

My gut feeling is that the answer to that question is almost certainly a resounding “no.” But there are three pieces of data that at least hint at the possibility that economists might be making some headway.

The first bit of evidence is the play-calling of Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, as reported by Michael Salfino in a Wall Street Journal article this past Saturday.? Nearly a decade ago, I was the editor on David Romer‘s Journal of Political Economy paper that demonstrated that NFL coaches were far too cautious when it came to choosing to punt on fourth down.? This year, on fourth down and three or fewer yards in the opponent’s territory, the Falcons went for it 72.2 percent of the time.? I don’t have the data from ten years ago available to me, but I believe no team would have been close to this percentage back then.? It paid off for the Falcons: they converted 84.6 percent of the time, increasing their points scored by about 30 points and possibly adding three wins.? Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots was an early convert to Romer’s analysis – I am told Belichick read the paper carefully.? The Patriots were the fourth most likely team to go for it on fourth down this year, converting all seven times they tried on fourth and short in their opponent’s territory.

The second bit of evidence relates to my own working paper, co-authored with Kenneth Kovash, that we released in 2009.? In that paper, we pointed out another apparent inefficiency in NFL play calling: too many runs and not enough passes.? Even after taking into account the higher likelihood of a turnover when passing, according to our analysis a passing play generates on average .07 extra points in expectation.? The teams that pass the most score an extra 14 points a year relative to the teams that run the most, by my calculations.? For what it is worth, the percentage of offensive plays that were passes rose to 55.4 percent this year from 54.7 percent.? Not a big change, and no doubt pure coincidence, but at least the trend is in the right direction.

The third bit of evidence is no doubt the strongest.? After Ken Kovash and I wrote that paper on football, an NFL team hired him!? (Ken follows in the footsteps of another of my former students, Mike Zarren, who is the stats guy for the Celtics.)? I’m happy to report that his team’s ratio of passes to runs jumped far more than the league average, so maybe they are even listening to him.

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  1. Erik says:

    With respect to passing more: are NFL coaches listening to economists, or are they just listening to college coaches?

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  2. Ross says:

    And how did that work out for the Cowboys this year?

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  3. Michael Radosevich says:

    NFL coaches live in a highly competitive world. The universal thought is, there are 29 other men trying to beat me. So the coaches scour high and low for information, and of course they take into account the analyses you mention.

    It’s just too bad that our politicians don’t face the same kind of competition. If Pres. Obama had listened to Paul krugman and other eminent economists and followed their advice on the size of his 2009 “stimulus”, the country – not to mention Mr. Obama – would be in a far better position today.

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  4. Adeel says:

    I agree with Erik. To a great extent, the pro game seems to be the most cautious, with innovation coming from below. I wonder how that compares with other sports.

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  5. Ian Kemmish says:

    Why not just ask the coaches? An ounce of knowledge is always worth a pound of speculation. (Unless, of course, you’re paid to fill a newspaper with a specified quantity of speculation…..)

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  6. Tim says:

    Statistically, are teams better off punting to Devin Hester or giving up field position and punting out of bounds?

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  7. Brian S says:

    Then again, let’s take a look at Dallas’ performance this year vs. that of the previous ten.

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  8. Mike says:

    But the cowboys did much better when they started to run the ball more often.

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