NFL Coaches Need to be More Thankful of Analytics
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
With today being arguably the biggest NFL day of the season apart from the Super Bowl, it is time to take a more in-depth look at the potential NFL coaches are passing up with their lack of data-driven decision making. We have seen Baseball and Basketball buy into the data world and have seen it make lasting impacts on the way their game is played, but NFL coaches have yet to buy into the analytics found in the NFL.
Each week in the NFL, there seems to be an argument whether a team made the correct call going for it on 4th down or going for two instead of kicking the extra point. The problem with this is that an NFL's analytics team is not focused on individual events but the probabilities of events over time in many plays and scenarios. Football staffs' cannot give in to media criticism. They need to trust the analytics process and understand that it could significantly impact their winning percentage throughout the season.
Data supports that NFL teams should be going for it on fourth down more than they are. Looking at the visualization in figure 1, we can see that teams should be going for it when they are between the opposing's team 30-yard line and midfield.
Let's bring some math into this. A team is on the opposing team's 40-yard line, and it is 4th and 3. The question is to punt, go for it, or kick a long field goal. If punted, the team will receive the ball around the 17-yard line. According to figure 2. a team will have about 0.3 expected points
if decided to kick the long field goal of 57 yards. There is around 40% of making it. A successful FG is worth 3 points minus the value of the ensuing kickoff for a total of 2.3 points (1). So to do the equation (0.40 * 2.3) + ((1-0.40) * -1.1) = 0.26 EP. Kicking the field goal will be -.4 expected points compared to punting the ball in this situation.
What if a team goes for it? Going for it in this position will be successful around 54% of the time. If successful, the team will have the ball on the 37yard line or closer, and if failed, the team would receive the ball on the 40-yard line, not accounting for sacks or turnovers. When a team is first and 10 on the 37-yard line, they have around 3.2 expected points. If the 4th down attempt failed, there is a -1.5 expected points. The equation: (0.54 * 3.2) + (1-0.54) * -1.5) = 1.04 expected points. From this position, it is best to go for it by over .7 expected points.
Why are teams not going for it more? Is it because they are anti analytics? Are they afraid to do something new and get fired if it doesn't result in winning straight away? Are they just stubborn and want to keep the game the same as back in the 'old days?' Nobody truly knows the answer besides the coaches, but any of these theories hold them back in their expected points.
When will the NFL get their own Daryl Morey? When will coaches start to be thankful of analytics?
Notes: 1. Burke, B. (2014). 4th Down Study. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from http://advancedfootballanalytics.com/index.php/home/research/game-strategy/120-4th-down-study 2.Chernoff, A. (2019). Expected Points Added in NFL betting. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://www.pinnacle.com/en/betting-articles/Football/expected-points-added-in-nfl-betting/4M72C83P2TVK77M4