The most interesting part of Monday’s post on TARP may have been this little football example:
In honor of the changing seasons, imagine it’s the first quarter of a football game and you have fourth-and-one at the other team’s 40-yard line. Anyone who studies football statistics will say you should go for it; it’s not even close. (Some people have run the numbers and said that a football team should never – that’s right, never – kick a punt.) If the offense fails to make it, the announcer, and the commentators the next day, will all say that it was a bad decision. That’s completely wrong. It was a good decision; it just didn’t work out.
One of my friends was particularly intrigued by the theory that a football team should never punt. I recall reading this somewhere, but I couldn’t find it actually demonstrated anywhere, although this high school football team implemented the strategy – and won the state championship. That article cites “Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Professional Football” by David Romer, who analyzes the punting question in detail.
He calculates the point value of a first down at any point on the field, and from that the point value of the “kicking” and “going for it” options at any point on the field; the point value of the punt option is based on the opponent’s expected field position, while the point values of the field goal and go for it options are based on your expected points and the expected resulting field position.
The conclusion (PDF p. 14) is that over most of the field you should go for it if you have four or fewer yards to go; there is a big spike around the opponent’s 33-yard line where you should go for it even on fourth and nine, because the net field position benefit of punting is low and the expected point value of attempting a field goal is low.
The implication, of course, is that football teams don’t maximize. Romer concedes that making the right decision on fourth down would lead to about one more win every three years, and this is probably outweighed by the asymmetric returns: you are more likely to be penalized (as a coach) if you go against convention and are wrong than if you follow convention, since the fans (and the owners) are more likely to notice departures from convention. So the incentives of football coaches are not simply to maximize points, but also to maintain their reputations.
It probably wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a banking analogy at this point, but I won’t beat a dead horse.
Update: Commenter Ian M. helpfully links to this analysis of the “never punt” strategy. Taunter also says that Gregg Easterbrook (Tuesday Morning Quarterback at ESPN) has been advocating this strategy.
By James Kwak