Sunday, February 7, 2010

It's Super Bowl Sunday, And I Am Just An Old Football Coach At Heart

Back when I coached, I was a big believer in using statistics to inform my decisions. So, my interest was piqued when I saw THIS article, even though I am not sure what it is getting at. Sounds like some sort of a fantasy league or Super Bowl pool. Who knows. 

THIS article begins to get at the heart of the matter, trying to convince the reader that mathematics does matter in football play calling. I was reminded of THIS article, briefly discussing the mathematics behind one of the most controversial coaching calls of this past NFL season, when the Patriots' Bill Belichick decided to go for the first down on forth-and-two from deep in his own territory with a lead late in the game. This lead me to recall THIS article about Pulaski (HS) Academy's Kevin Kelly and his use of statistics to inform his football decisions. Consider Coach Kelly's take on the onside kick:
The onside kicks? According to Kelley's figures, after a kickoff the receiving team, on average, takes over at its own 33-yard line. After a failed onside kick the team assumes possession at its 48. Through the years Pulaski has recovered about a quarter of its onside kicks. "So you're giving up 15 yards for a one-in-four chance to get the ball back," says Kelley. "I'll take that every time!"
However, the article I have enjoyed the most was by the University of California at Berkley professor David Romer, It's Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say? A Dynamic Programming Analysis of Football Strategy. In a nutshell, Romer concluded that NFL coaches are far too conservative with their decisions, often going against what statistics suggest is prudent. I actually printed out all twenty-some pages and attached the article to one of our practice plans.

Another interesting article is Stephen Abbott's interview with former Washington Redskins Offensive Coordinator Chris Meidt, an undergraduate mathematics major, in the September 2009 edition of Math Horizons. Meidt's take on statistics: the NFL the data for everything is available. There are a number of statistical firm that capture everything so it’s all there. What’s our run/pass ratio for second and three? What’s our success percentage when we run or when we pass? I used to have to do this myself. I computed it for every down distance in the field. I did it for the red-zone [inside the 20 yard-line] ad nauseam. You’ve got two choices—run or pass—and you have three downs. Once you create your tree, it just becomes a game theory problem—what is the most likely outcome and what has the greatest expected value?
If I wasn't teaching, I think running numbers for a professional or college football team would be an intersting thing to do.

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