Coaches Are Fish

Submitted by Brian on December 18th, 2006 at 9:28 PM

The Romer paper is sort of an MGoBlog cause celebre, so it's with great glee that I point out a Michael Lewis article in the most recent ESPN The Magazine($)*. It seems Romer's convincing statistical proof that NFL teams scoff at expectation when making fourth-down decisions has had zero impact. Since its publication NFL teams have actually gone for it less on fourth down (14.5 percent now, 15.1 then). The Sports Economist summarizes Lewis' theory as to why:

Lewis first asks if Romer is simply wrong, but concludes that this is not the case (and I agree). Lewis also wonders if NFL coaches simply can't understand the complexity of Romer's argument. This is a possibility, but Lewis argues the coaches are more than capable of understanding complex arguments. After all, just running an NFL team – as anyone associated with the Detroit Lions has learned in recent years – is quite complex and difficult.

No, Lewis thinks Romer is right and NFL coaches understand his arguments. For Lewis, the reason why coaches fail to heed Romer's wisdom is that coaches do not wish to undermine their reputation in the coaching fraternity. As Lewis puts it "Go for it on fourth down more often than any other coach, and you not only set yourself apart from your peers, but you call into question their intelligence. If your decision doesn't pay off – if you go for it routinely and your team fails – you'll stand accused of malpractice."

Interesting to see this theory in practice on the NCAA level. Two prominent coaches are liable to go for it on any fourth down that looks tempting: USC's Pete Carroll and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis. And you couldn't pick two coaches with more opposite public personas. Carroll, derisively nicknamed "Pom-Pom" by rival fans, shows up dressed like Ricky Bobby, plays practical jokes on his players, and is down with Snoop Dogg. He's the archetypical "players' coach" who is lauded mostly for hiring Norm Chow and his ability to get every OMG shirtless recruit in the country to commit to USC. I don't think it's out of line to suggest that he's regarded more as an organizational figurehead than an Xs-and-Os maven.

Weis, on the other hand, is a supergenius. A tactical master blah blah, you know the drill. He offhandedly implies that other coaches are kinda stupid on a regular basis (and, IMO, is not entirely wrong). He's subject alternately to "he's a genius" swooning and "he ain't no genius" sneering, depending largely on the POV of the author and the results of Notre Dame's most recent game. It's not difficult to imagine a lot of doors closing should he find himself in need of a job at some point in the future.

This is to say that the way a coach acts vastly outweighs what he calls when it comes to media perception. If The Orgeron was to suddenly convert to the Church of Romer (he may have already but hasn't been able to show us since Ole Miss never found itself in fourth and less than 20) and justified it to the media by declaring anyone wanting to question his new strategery would have to defeat him in a shirtless greasy wrestling match, chances are the next day's paper would be conspicuously light on assertions that Orgeron's brain has gotten to big for his, um, brain-britches. Or whatever.

I don't buy it. I don't think fired NFL head coaches panhandling for jobs get turned down because they went for it more often than the league average. So what could possibly explain the gap between Romer game theory and NFL reality? Poker. I've played a lot of it. It's game theory in one of its purest forms, and the lesson it teaches is this: for the vast majority of the population it is hard to play anything other than weakly (ie, betting rarely, raising even more rarely, but calling lots) . Variance is scary. Inexperienced players don't want to risk folding a winner, but neither do they want to risk getting into a big pot with a loser. So they'll call down with third pair or whatever. That's why the most popular games by far are cheap limit games. Most people will take a negative expectation (small limit games have a proportionally huge rake that makes beating the game very difficult) as long as it promises lower variance, because gambling's fun derives largely from fear. People like a little fear. It's rare to run across someone who likes lots of it. This is not a gambling thing, it's a human nature thing. There's a lot of cognitive science behind it. Humans, as a species that relies on the effective application of knowledge to survive as opposed to freakin' huge talons or whatever, are constantly torn between the realms they know, which are safe but boring, and the realms they don't, which expand his knowledge but are dangerous. The end result is a sort of addiction to slightly new experiences and a lot of timid poker.

If coaches are drawn from a fairly typical sample of the population and have a fairly typical amount of risk tolerance (little), then it makes sense that most coaches are tight-weak. The only reason they wouldn't be tight-weak is if it provided some evolutionary advantage -- coaching is nothing if not Darwinistic -- that forced it into the population. Evidence suggests it does: FO found that the most likely to go were Parcells, Belichick (not coincidentally Weis's mentor), Shanahan, Cowher, and Schottenheimer. The Sports Economist extrapolates from Lewis and surmises that crotchety, successful old coaches don't have to care about what their peers think, but maybe you get to be a crotchety, successful old coach because you're more concerned about extending your current job than finding your next one.

So why isn't everyone aggressive by now? Most coaches, Romer-intelligent or not, get fired and replaced with some other guy plucked fresh from the ranks of the coordinators. When you get thrust into the poker of the NFL for the first time, the stakes are high, the depths dizzying, and the consequences of a gamble that backfires severe. The natural inclination of the n00b is to cower and make the safe play. Most of them never live long enough to get out of the kiddie pool and start making moves.

*(I saw an ad for "ESPN the Weekend" something like a month ago. Is anyone reminded of "Spaceballs the Flamethrower?"

Lone Starr: Yogurt. What is this place? What is it that you do here?
Yogurt: Merchandising.
Barf: Merchandising? What's that?
Yogurt: Merchandising. Come! I'll show you. [to the Dinks] Open up the store
[Yogurt walks over to a wall filled with Spaceballs merchandise.]
Yogurt: Merchandising! Merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made! Spaceballs: the T-shirt, Spaceballs: the Coloring Book, Spaceballs: the Lunchbox, Spaceballs: the Breakfast Cereal. Spaceballs: the Flame Thrower... [fires a short blast from flame thrower]
Dinks: Oooooohhhh!
Yogurt: The kids love this one. And last, but not least, Spaceballs: the doll, me.
[Yogurt squeezes the doll, which says "May the Schwartz be with you!"]
Yogurt: Adorable.