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How Rational Is Football Play Calling?

American football at the major college and NFL levels is so oriented toward winning that you would think it should operate on a completely rational basis. The financial stakes are so high that one would expect irrational decisions to always lose out to strategies with a higher percentage of success.

However, we don’t always see the “smart” play call in football games. In certain situations, the prevailing wisdom favors strategy that goes against the odds. Are play callers right to do this? Is “rational” always the winning strategy?

Go For Two?

One area of play calling that has been extremely rationalized is the decision over whether to go for a one- or two-point conversion after a touchdown. Coaches have charts combining the size of the team’s lead (or deficit) with the time left in the game, and a predetermined choice of one- or two-point conversion for every combination. Of course some coaches don’t always follow the chart, and there can be other factors such as how good the team is at picking up short yardage.

Running Out The Clock

One area of play calling that is far less rational is the decision of whether to run out the clock when close to the end of the first half. The team with the ball has to weigh the potential reward of scoring against giving the other team one more chance before halftime. This risk/reward ratio is much more difficult to calculate than the conversion example above. If you are deep in your own territory and playing against a quick-scoring team, it makes sense to kill the clock. However, it seems to me that far too many coaches run out the clock when they are around mid-field or better with time for just a play or two. It seems much more likely that a pass downfield would result in a score for the team with the ball than it would in an interception with a long runback.

You often hear boos from the crowd when the coach plays it safe in this case. I suggest that a culture of playing it safe makes the coach afraid to take the favorable risk. If he’s wrong, he runs a risk of being ridiculed (by fans and the athletic director) for giving up a late score. The same culture exists in hockey, in which it is considered a sin to give up a goal in the last minute of the period (as if it were any better or worse than a goal given up earlier). Oddly, there are a significant number of coaches who occasionally like to take the apparently foolish risk of going for it on fourth down and short on their own 30-yard line early in the game. It would be interesting to study the correlation between risky fourth down plays and going for it near the end of the half to see if coaches are consistent in their levels of risky play.

1st and 10 VS. 1st and 5

In 1971 quarterback (and mathematician) Virgil Carter did a statistical analysis that showed that NFL teams on average scored more points when they had first and goal from the 10 yard line than they did with first and goal from the 5. This is because passing from the 10 provides a larger area for receivers to get free. I heard this discussed by a commentator during an NFL game, so this was apparently not a big secret. However, I don’t recall seeing, certainly not very often, the coach of the defending team decline a 5-yard penalty against the offense in this situation (the penalty would help the offense). Nor do I see the offense deliberately going off-sides to get more room.

Is this simply a matter of it not seeming logical to have to go twice as far to score? Should we call it irrational not to follow Virgil Carter’s logic? Oddly, however, teams do take deliberate penalties when having to punt from a short distance, in order to give the punter more room to lay down a punt inside the 20, and the defense often declines the penalty! I think that there is a culture of collective wisdom about these things, and that wisdom is not necessarily rational.

Safeties: NFL vs. CFL

Here’s one you’ll see debated on sports blogs. Why are there so many intentional safeties in the CFL (Canadian Football League), when they are so rare in the NFL? The rules and size of the field vary somewhat, but it still doesn’t really make sense. In the NFL intentional safeties usually occur near the end of the game when the leading team would rather give up two points than risk a quick losing touchdown. Then they can kick the ball farther away from the 20. In the CFL the ball is kicked from the 25, and the other team can choose to take the ball on their own 35 (the field is 110 yards, and the endzones are twice as deep as in the NFL).

Some people think the NFL should have more intentional safeties, but most people on these blogs seem to think that the CFL has way too many. It would seem to be rational that one of those views is correct, and I think it’s the latter. I think it’s a culture, a collective wisdom, not a rational calculation.

Collective Wisdom Trumps Rational Decision-Making

It’s easier for me to think of such cases in football than in any other sport. I’m not sure why, although it seems to have a lot to do with the fixed physical space and the emphasis on yardage in football, making this aspect easier to calculate. But surely there are lots of other, more complicated aspects of the game in which there’s a conflict between culture and logic.

Nevertheless, here’s a great one in baseball. I remember hearing a baseball radio commentator in the 1950s saying that somebody did a study that found you should never sacrifice bunt. And of course that went against the traditional culture of baseball. In the past few years this issue has been revived, perhaps because nowadays there is such intense scrutiny of everything under the sun on the Internet, maybe especially in sports.

One view now is that players with batting averages under .075 should always bunt (with a runner on second and less than two outs), and batters hitting over .234 should never bunt in a “bunting situation,” except that bunting increases your chances of getting at least one run. Of course, you’d better be sure that one run will be enough, because you’re severely limiting your chances of scoring more. Interesting, and the bottom line is that there has been way too much bunting over the decades from a rational perspective.

But Is “Rational” Always the Best Strategy?

I think it’s important to say that game situations are often so complicated that the simplistic “rational” decision isn’t always really the best one. For example, sometimes coaches need to get their team fired up, and they will call a risky play to shake things up, like going for it on fourth down from their own 25. Or they’re playing a superior team, and they know if they punt the ball away the other team is bound to score anyway. Also, in one sense a coach who wants to keep his job may in a sense be “rational” if he avoids even good risks at the end of the half, so he doesn’t give the athletic director an excuse to criticize him. Another point is that fans may actually enjoy the game more if coaches and players do unexpected, questionable things that give them something to talk about (or blog about).

Charles Emmons is a Professor of Sociology at Gettysburg College, and an avid sports fan.


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