Game Theory and Football: How Irrationality Affects Play Calling
June 15, 2011 24 Comments
Coaches and coordinators in professional football get paid a lot of money to call the right plays – not just the best plays for particular situations, but also unpredictable plays that will catch the other team off guard. It’s a perfect setup for game theory analysis!
As in other game theory situations, the best play depends in part on what your opponent does. Your running play is much more likely to succeed against a pass-prevent defense, but would be in trouble against a run-stuffing formation. If the defense can guess what you’re going to call, they can adjust accordingly and have an advantage. Even on 3rd down and long – a common passing situation – there’s value in calling a percent of running plays, because the defense is less likely to be geared toward stopping that. But as you do it more, the chance of catching the defense off guard gets smaller. There’s some optimal balance where the expected success of a surprising run is equal to the expected success of a more sensible (but anticipated) pass.
The goal is to stay unpredictable and exploit patterns where your opponent is using a sub-optimal combination. If a team notices that passing plays are working better, they’ll be more likely to call them. As the defense notices, they’ll shift away from their run-defense and focus more on defending passes. In theory, the two teams reach an equilibrium.
In practice, it doesn’t quite work that perfectly – human beings are making the decisions, and humans are both vulnerable to cognitive biases and notoriously bad at mimicking true unpredictability. Brian Burke, a fellow fan of combining sports with statistics, was poring over the play-calling data for second downs and noticed something odd:
There’s a strange spike in percent of running plays called at 2nd and 10! Tactically, 2nd and 10 isn’t all that different from 2nd and 9 or 11, so it’s strange to see such a difference. Why would they call so many more running plays in that particular situation?
The key is to realize that there are two ways a team tends to find itself facing a 2nd and 10 situation – runs that happen to go nowhere or any incomplete pass. Of those, incomplete passes are far more common. So in cases of 2nd and 10, it’s most often because the team just failed a passing play. That suggests two reasons coaches might be irrationally switching to running plays, even at the cost of sacrificing unpredictability:
(1) The hasty generalization bias (also called the small sample bias) and the recency effect are cognitive biases in which people overgeneralize from a small amount of data, especially recent data. Failed passes are very common (about 40% fail), so there’s no good reason for a coach to treat any single failed pass as evidence that they’d be better off switching to a running play. But the urge to overreact to the failed pass that just happened is strong, thanks to these two biases.
(2) People are terrible at generating unpredictability — when asked to make up a “seemingly-random” sequence of coin flips, we tend to use far more alternation between Heads and Tails than would actually occur in a real sequence of coin flips. So even if coaches weren’t overreacting to a failed pass, and they were simply trying to be unpredictable, they would still tend to switch to a running play after a passing play more often than random chance would dictate.
Indeed, when Brian separated the data by previous play, the alternation trend is clear — passes are more likely after runs, and runs are more likely after passes:
Coaches and coordinators are apparently not immune to the small sample fallacy. In addition to the inability to simulate true randomness, I think this helps explain the tendency to alternate. I also think this why the tendency is so easy to spot on the 2nd and 10 situation. It’s the situation that nearly always follows a failure. The impulse to try the alternative, even knowing that a single recent bad outcome is not necessarily representative of overall performance, is very strong.
So recency bias may be playing a role. More recent outcomes loom disproportionately large in our minds than past outcomes. When coaches are weighing how successful various play types have been, they might be subconsciously over-weighting the most recent information—the last play. But regardless of the reasons, coaches are predictable, at least to some degree.
Coaches are letting irrational biases influence their play calling, pulling them away from the optimal mix. The result, according to Pro Football Reference stats, is less success on those plays. I wonder how well a computer could call plays using a Statistical Prediction Rule…