Controversy in the NFL play-offs … What would Zeus say?

No, we’re not talking about the defensive pass interference penalty flag that was picked up without explanation in the Cowboys-Lions game.

Everybody is all over that one.  So, we’ll pass.

What caught my eye was a piece in SBNation headlined: “Lions fans should be a bit mad at the referees for what happened as they tried to seal a win. They should be just as mad at their coach, though.”


The situation:

Late in the game, the Lions had a fourth-and-1 on the Dallas 46.

At first, they lined up to go for it. But they didn’t.

Instead, the Lion’s punter shanked a 10-yarder …

Retrospectively, a bad call, for sure.

But, coach Caldwell was just going with coaches’ conventional wisdom.

Leading to a broader question: how often is NFL coaches’ conventional wisdom right (or wrong)?

I’ve got something on that …

Read an interesting book recently:  Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition by a Wall Street banker named Michael Mauboussin.

Mauboussin says; “Sometimes, the success rate (following conventional wisdom) is not very high. So to improve your chance of success, you have to do something different than everyone else.”

One example is the play calling of National Football League coaches in critical game situations including fourth downs, kickoffs, and two-point conversion attempts.

As in many other sports, conventional ways to decide about these situations are handed down from one generation of coaches to the next.

But this stale decision-making process means scoring fewer points and winning fewer games.

Chuck Bower, an astrophysicist at Indiana University, and Frank Frigo, a former world backgammon champion, created a computer program called Zeus to assess the play-calling decisions of pro football coaches.

Zeus uses the same modeling techniques that have succeeded in backgammon and chess programs, and the creators loaded it with statistics and the behavioral traits of coaches.

Bower and Frigo found that only four teams in the thirty-two-team league made crucial decisions that agreed with Zeus over one-half of the time, and that nine teams made decisions that concurred less than one-quarter of the time.

Zeus estimates that these poor decisions can cost a team more than one victory per year, a large toll in a sixteen-game season.

Most coaches stick to the conventional wisdom, because that is what they have learned and they are averse to the perceived negative consequences of breaking from past practice.

But Zeus shows that (an unconventional approach) can lead to more wins for the coach willing to break with tradition.

Bottom line: Zeus agrees with SBNation … not with Coach Caldwell.


Separately, how about those Buckeyes? I guess that E + R = O



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One Response to “Controversy in the NFL play-offs … What would Zeus say?”

  1. AR Says:

    Conventional play calling-brings to mind Daniel Kahneman and his work on loss aversion. As the aphorism goes, “Nobody ever got fired for hiring McKinsey” (or putting from the 45?).

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