Football Endgames

12 11 2010

Football coaches don’t think nearly enough about the amount of time they’re leaving on the clock when they score near the end of halves.  Time left on the clock is something they have a lot of control over.  And it has a considerable effect on the result of the game.  And yet, it seems like coaches bungle these decisions even more often than when deciding whether to go for it on 4th down.

For example, suppose a team trails by 5 with first and goal at their opponents’ 1-yard line and 0:50 left on the clock, their opponent having three timeouts.  Consider the result of three outcomes:

  1. The team scores a touchdown on first down, leaving their opponent 0:47 and three timeouts.
  2. The team scores a touchdown on second down, leaving their opponent 0:42 and two timeouts.
  3. The team scores a touchdown on third down, leaving their opponent 0:35 and one timeout.
  4. The team scores a touchdown on fourth down, leaving their opponent 0:30 and zero timeouts.
  5. The team turns the ball over.

For each of these scenarios, you can estimate the team’s expectation of winning, based on the skill of their defense and the opponent’s offense.  For scenario 5, their expectation is zero, or very close to zero.  For scenario 1, their expectation may be as low as 0.3.  For scenarios 3 and 4, their expectation will be much higher, even assuming their opponent’s ability to move the ball.

Any yet, you never see a team in this situation call a running play that’s designed not to score.  They always try to score immediately, then seem overjoyed when they hand the ball–and the game–back to their opponent.  While the specific example above may not happen often, the thinking applies any time a game is close at the end of a half.  Teams should be thinking both about how many points they’re trying to score, and how much time they’re leaving on the clock, as both are significant determinants of the final score of the game

I can think of explanation why coaches do this.  There’s the classic risk aversion argument used to explain coaches’ timidity on fourth down.  Furthermore, there’s a certain gamesmanship going on; it looks bad when a coach is looking the game and appears to be not trying hard to score.  Players themselves may resist the idea of running plays designed not to score points but rather to run off the clock.  But there are a lot of game swung by teams leaving their opponents too much time on the clock.

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