Friday, October 03, 2008

On Punting

A week or so ago Todd Zwicki at the Volokh Conspiracy pointed to this article from ESPN about football teams punting on 4th-and-short. The article cites a scientific study done several years ago which shows pretty conclusively that pro football teams would be better off going for first down (or a TD) on most 4th-and-short situations. Instead, they overwhelmingly kick. "Teams' actual choices are dramatically more conservative than the choices
recommended by the dynamic-programming analysis. On the 1604 fourth downs in the sample where the analysis implies that teams are on average better off kicking, they went for it only 9 times. But on the 1068 fourth downs where the analysis implies that teams are on average better off going for it, they kicked 959 times."

The reason for this is quite understandable: the team and the coach have different objectives. The team may want to win the game, but the coach is much more concerned about keeping his job. If the coach chooses to kick, the players get the blame/credit when the team loses/wins. If the coach chooses to go for it, when the team wins the players still get the credit, but when they lose, it's the coach (and his bad call) that gets the blame.

When watching a game on TV, note how often commentators will say, when a team is stopped with on 4th-and-1 at mid-field, "Well, now they must kick." No they mussant. If they want to win the game and don't really care who coaches the team, they will go for it!

I am reminded of this in thinking about the financial rescue/bailout bill before Congress. It is easy to understand what is going on in Washington when you realize that congressmen don't really have the citizen's interests at heart. Their overriding interest is getting re-elected, despite what that might mean for the country's citizens.

What to do about this? I don't know. If I did, I'd probably be coaching football somewhere. But at least I understand a little better what's going on in Washington.

And Tommy, don't punt so much.

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