In the New Republic, Nate Cohn explores the small but growing role of advanced statistics in football. Projects like Football Freakonomics notwithstanding, the NFL isn’t usually thought of as a realm where stats hold all that much sway, in part because the game is so much more of a complex-dynamic system than, say, baseball. Here’s Cohn on one big change fans might notice if more coaches start relying on statistics:
The one place where fans could see analytics at work is in play calling, which also happens to be the place where analytics could impact the average fan’s experience of the game. The numbers suggest, for instance, that teams should be aggressive on fourth down, and that it’s better to go for first down with a lead in a game’s final minutes than to run the ball on third down to run out the clock. Yet even the teams with well-regarded analytics departments, including San Francisco and Baltimore, largely adhere to a conservative and traditional play calling approach: the coaches “just aren’t listening to them yet,” [Brian] Burke says. And the few coaches with a reputation for following the statistics, like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, aren’t even close to as aggressive as the numbers would advise.
If coaches begin to adopt the lessons of advanced football statistics, the changes would be noticeable to even a casual fan: Teams would go for it on fourth down, stop running so much on first down, go for the jugular with a late lead, and take big risks as an underdog in the first quarter. In that sense, statistics might promise more fundamental changes to football than baseball. Fans watching a data-driven baseball manager might not notice any big changes at all, unless they were fans of bunting.
Steve Levitt will be happy to hear this.
(HT: The Big Picture)