If there was one thing NFL coaches could do to guarantee themselves half a win more per season, you can pretty much guarantee all 32 of them would climb a 30-foot barbed wire fence and then kick the nearest puppy to secure that advantage for themselves. That advantage is there for the taking, Nate Silver says, and yet NFL coaches aren't taking it.
In case you're unfamiliar with Silver's expertise on the topic of numbers, here you go: after analyzing statistical models to call the winner of every political race from the U.S. President to the Billings, Montana, city council, Silver was hired by ESPN to work his numerical magic for the Worldwide Leader in Sports. If he says two plus two equals five, he's got a mountain of spreadsheets proving him correct.
In his latest piece for ESPN, Silver details how analytics have changed the way MLB and NBA teams approach the game. For example, Silver notes how the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A's teams of the early 2000's changed the way baseball approaches on base percentage. Those teams were built on players who simply found ways to get on base, and now OBP specialists like new Texas Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo are signing $130 million contracts. The NBA found that a corner 3-point shot was, over the course of 100 possessions, worth just as many points as a layup. And now the Miami Heat are bringing in defensive stoppers/corner 3 specialists like Shane Battier as the final ingredient to their championship stew.
There is a similar statistical sweet spot in the NFL, but coaches have refused to exploit it: fourth-and-short. Coaches, Silver argues, remain far too conservative in fourth-and-short situations despite evidence that a little extra aggression goes a long way. According to the New York Times, the average NFL team sent its kicking unit onto the field in a fourth-and-short situation when the data says the offense should have remained on the field a whopping 21.7 times over the course of the regular season. All those missed chances added up to 0.5 losses per team over the season, Silver says.
And the reason for erring so often on the side of caution, Silver says, lays at the feet of NFL culture as a whole.
My view is that NFL coaches aren't irrational or necessarily ignorant of the statistics as much as they are poorly incentivized to get these decisions right. The average NFL team has been owned by the same family or organization since 1980 -- for the past 34 years. (By contrast, the average MLB and NBA team last changed owners in 1999.) Furthermore, because of the NFL's prodigious popularity and its generous revenue-sharing policies, even losing or incompetent owners possess extraordinarily valuable products. (The Jacksonville Jaguars are worth $840 million, according to Forbes.) This is a culture that fosters extreme risk aversion. Going for it on fourth down is risky twice over: in the micro sense of staking more on the result of one play, and in the macro sense of defying custom and tradition.
Maybe a decade from now we'll write about the NFL team that rode a wave of situational aggression to a Super Bowl title. Maybe.