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Football Coaches and Rational Choices

Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight:

Thus, our best (and perhaps slightly conservative) estimate is that the Packers cost themselves about 7.9 percent of a win by kicking rather than going for two, and this whole thing could have been avoided if NFL coaches took the time to sit down and learn some basic percentages….

Another year, another year with NFL coaches not doing their jobs and not being taken to task for it. By now, coaches have no excuse for not having mastered basic decisions like these.

People say coaches are afraid of media criticism. But they’re professionals, among the handful of elite who are capable of doing what they do. If a coach cares what the media thinks, let him explain his logic.

There’s so much that is touchingly naïve about this, but more than anything, the idea that a football coach — or anyone else — could save his job when under fierce criticism by “explaining his logic.”

Morris thinks coaches, when they make these decisions, are being irrational. They are in fact being perfectly rational. Why does Morris think they are irrational? Because he thinks that the only relevant factor in evaluating decisions is what will increase the likelihood of winning a game. But this is obviously false, because every coach or manager knows that many coaches and managers, across the spectrum of sports, who have been very good at winning games have also, with alarming frequency and without rational justification, been fired. And no coach is selfless enough to factor his own job security out of his calculations.

Here’s what Mike McCarthy may have been thinking at the crucial moment in that playoff game:

  1. If we go for two and make it, I will be praised as a “riverboat gambler,” because hardly anyone in the press or among Packers fandom understands the percentages involved.
  2. If we go for two and fail, millions of people will scream “What the hell was McCarthy doing??” Thousands of people will call into radio shows to demand my ouster. Hundreds of columnists will write stories about my recklessness and thoughtlessness. And the sum total of all these interventions will put pressure on my bosses to fire me, pressure that they well very likely succumb to, especially since we haven’t been all that great the past couple of years.
  3. If I just kick the extra point I will be, generally speaking, neither praised nor blamed.

Ergo, and given that coaches will inevitably be concerned not just with the chances of winning a given game but also with the chances of keeping their jobs, McCarthy’s decision to kick the extra point was perfectly rational, as long as we have a proper understanding of what “reason” is in a given case; which is to say, as long as we factor in the variables that are immensely significant but not in any obvious way mathematically calculable.

The more general lesson to be applied here — one that the analysts at FiveThirtyEight need to reflect on — is this: It is not rational to act perfectly “rationally” when surrounded by irrational people whose actions have influence over your life.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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