Better Strategy for NFL Teams

3 02 2009

Too many teams make horrendous strategic decisions during football games, including the Superbowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who on their first possession kicked a field goal on 4th and goal from the one inch line, and on their last possession used a timeout to maximize the amount of time left on the clock when their opponents got the ball back.

Teams using bad strategy isn’t news.  Gregg Easterbrook publishes the exact same column every week, which notes these strategic errors, right before the creepy ogling of a cheerleader and crappy analysis of outer space.  But how to fix the problem?  First, note some causes of these errors:

  • Head-coaches rely on conventional wisdom, which often contradicts optimal strategy.
  • The number of games head-coaches have been involved with is fairly small, so they haven’t had sufficient sample size to determine optimal strategy.
  • In the heat of a game, it’s easy for head-coaches to overlook strategic subtleties; it’s like being on tilt in a poker game.
  • Head-coaches fear the blame that comes from with taking a risk and failing and tend to make decisions that are overly conservative.

Here’s my solution: forces all NFL teams to hire a level-headed strategy guy.  The LHSG would address these issues head-on by providing level-headed advice to head-coaches, and by providing cover when things go horribly wrong.

I envision a post-game conference going something like this:

Obnoxious reporter: Hey coach, trailing by three points in the fourth quarter, you went for it on fourth and two at the five yard line.  Why not kick the field goal?

Coach: Actually, I’m gonna refer that question to our level-headed strategy guy.

Obnoxious reporter: Hey level-headed strategy guy, trailing by three points in the fourth quarter, you went for it on fourth and two at the five yard line.  Why not kick the field goal?

LHSG: Well we built a regression model and determined that if we kicked the field goal, our probability of winning the game was 0.38, but if we went for it, that probability would be 0.43.

Coach: You’re fired, level-headed strategy guy.

LHSG: Okay.

Note that the level-headed strategy guy is so level-headed, he doesn’t even care when he gets fired.  Even in this economy!

Anyway, the qualifications for LHSG would be as follows:

  • Bachelor’s degree from a decent school in statistics, economics, math, or similar field.
  • Read this paper.
  • Familiar with NFL personnel. (i.e. 5 years of fantasy football)
  • Log at least 500 hours of Madden, or similar football video game, and experiment with different strategies.
  • Be level-headed.

There’s my two cents.  Gotta run…I think Easterbrook’s about to publish his column again.