Football Freakonomics: The Frozen Conundrum

Well, it’s January. And even though my team stumbled into inglorious, injury-plagued defeat, the most exciting football is yet to be played -- some of it in very cold weather.

So we thought it was time to take a look at the various effects, and hidden side, of cold weather. That’s the focus of our latest installment of Football Freakonomics.

It is no secret that weather, cold or hot, has a significant effect on athletic performance. I don’t want to start an argument here about what constitutes a sport and what doesn’t, but I will say that the most frustrating six hours of my life was spent on a lake in upstate New York trying to coax some walleye through a hole in the ice. Brrr! 

What Does Tim Tebow Pray For?

In a recent Football Freakonomics video about Tim Tebow, I made a connection between his faith and performance: Tebow is hardly the first NFL quarterback to be demonstrative about his religious faith. But he’s very demonstrative – and it’s worth considering how that faith may affect his play. By definition, faith often translates into a […]

Football Freakonomics: Who's Peaking?

The preliminaries are finally over. As we head into the first weekend of NFL playoffs, the conversation shifts. No longer are we talking about the long arc of the season – about working out the kinks, getting schemes in place, or jockeying for position. Now, with every game a do-or-die game, we’re talking about which team is peaking at the right time. Because no matter how good (or bad) your record may be, the final summit is in sight and it’s time to turn on the juice.

In the latest installment of “Football Freakonomics,” we look at the art and science of peaking. What’s the best way to assess a team’s peak position?

"Football Freakonomics": Incentives

Today’s question on “Football Freakonomics” is a tricky one. Which incentive is stronger for an NFL player: landing a big contract or winning the Super Bowl?

It can be devilishly hard to find out what truly motivates people to do what they do. There are a lot of reasons for this. Different people have different preferences; an incentive that works for a while may wear off over time; and it’s dangerous to rely on what people say about their motivation, since most of us are concerned about saying “the right thing.”

It’s better, therefore, to measure actual behavior – in this case, for instance, how players perform before and after signing a big contract.

“Football Freakonomics”: Does Firing Your Head Coach Fix Anything?

‘Tis the season – for the firing of head coaches, that is. In the space of two weeks, three teams – the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Dolphins – canned their top man.

Allow me to make two seemingly contradictory points:

  • An NFL head coach is probably the most influential, hands-on coach in the four major sports; but:
  • Firing the head coach of a bad team probably does a lot less to improve that team than most of us think.

Our latest “Football Freakonomics” segment (video below) asks whether firing a head coach really does much to improve a team’s chances – or if it’s simply the standard move for losing organizations, meant to appease critics in the media, the stands, and even the locker room.

“Football Freakonomics”: Tebow Timing

The following is a cross-post from, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project. This segment aired before last Sunday's Patriots-Broncos game.

One of the arguments both for and against Tim Tebow as a viable, long-term NFL starter is the idea that he should simply not be doing what he’s doing right now. Tebow’s critics say he’s getting far too much credit for his 7-1 record as a starter this season – that he’s benefiting from an unexplainable run of luck -- while his supporters point to the exceptional performances he’s turned in immediately following those fortuitous bounces.

So how is a team that ranks second-to-last in passing yards, whose quarterback completes fewer than half his throws, pulling out miraculous victories week after week?

"Football Freakonomics": How Advantageous Is Home-Field Advantage? And Why?

The following is a cross-post from, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project.

Do home teams really have an advantage?

Absolutely. In their book Scorecasting, Toby Moscowitz and Jon Wertheim helpfully compile the percentage of home games won by teams in all the major sports. Some data sets go back further than others (MLB figures are since 1903; NFL figures are “only” from 1966, and MLS since 2002), but they are all large enough to be conclusive:

League Home Games Won
MLB 53.9%
NHL 55.7%
NFL 57.3%
NBA 60.5%
MLS 69.1%

So it’s hard to argue against the home-field advantage. In fact my Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt once wrote an academic paper about the wisdom of betting (shh!) on home underdogs (more here).

But why does that advantage exist? There are a lot of theories to consider, including: “sleeping in your own bed” and “eating home cooking”, better familiarity with the home field/court, and crowd support.

"Football Freakonomics": How Much Do Injuries Hurt?

The following is a cross-post from, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project.

It doesn’t take a genius to argue that injuries can have a massive effect on an NFL team’s fortunes. This season, we may be living through the most heightened example in history of that fact. The Indianapolis Colts, with Peyton Manning sidelined since Week 1 with a neck injury, currently stand winless at 0-12. Over the previous five seasons with Manning in charge, the Colts have gone 61-19 during the regular season.

How can the absence of one player, even a star quarterback, have such an impact? As Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders contends in the latest episode of Football Freakonomics: “Not only were they built around him offensively, but the defense was generally built around them getting the lead and then having defensive ends just tee off on the opposing QB while the other team has to pass to try to catch up.”

The Manning-less Colts are losing off the field too – attendance is down, Manning jersey sales are down, and some Colts fans have jumped on the “Suck for Luck” campaign, figuring that if the Colts are going to be bad they might as well be bad enough to snare Andrew Luck with the top pick in the draft.

"Football Freakonomics": Is the N.F.L. a Quarterback-Driven League?

We launched the Football Freakonomics series in the spring with an episode called “The Quarterback Quandary.” It examined the difficulty of drafting QB’s since they tend to be a) vital to a team’s success; and b) relatively expensive; but c) hard to assess coming out of college even if they have a substantial track record.

One thing we can all agree on, however: the NFL today is a quarterback’s league -- isn’t it?

That’s the question we ask in our latest Football Freakonomics segment.

The numbers certainly line up in support of the quarterback’s dominance. As you can see in the accompanying graphic, there has been a sea change in the pass/run ratio over the past few decades. In the 1970’s, NFL offenses averaged roughly 26 passes and 35 runs per game. By the 2000’s, those numbers had essentially flip-flopped, with about 32 passes and 28 runs per game.

"Football Freakonomics": When Good Stats Go Bad

The following is a cross-post from, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics Project.

What do Dan Marino, Jerry Rice, and MarTay Jenkins have in common?

Yes, wise guy, they all played in the NFL. But beyond that? They all hold all-time single-season records.

+ Marino (among his other records) passed for 5,084 yards in 1984.

+ Rice (among his many other records) gained 1,848 receiving yards in 1995.

+ Jenkins had 2,186 kickoff-return yards in 2000 for the Arizona Cardinals.

But Jenkins, unlike the other two, won’t be getting a call from Canton any time soon, even though he set a second record that season – for the number of kickoff returns, with 82. Eighty-two kickoff returns! That’s an average of more than 5 a game.

Care to guess the Cardinals’ record in 2000? They were 3-13. Yes, it’s great to be a kickoff returner when your team is getting kicked off to over and over and over again.

And so it is that MarTay Jenkins is the poster boy for our latest Freakonomics Football video, “When Good Stats Go Bad.”