How NFL Coaches are like Midlevel Workers in Corporate America

Bill Belichick is widely thought of as the smartest coach in the NFL.  He has been hugely successful, coaching the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl four times in his 9 years of coaching, winning three.  Like many successful people, Belichick rubs many NFL fans the wrong way, leading many to revel in his failures.  Part of the schadenfreude can be explained by his somewhat abrasive personality and win at all costs mentality.  He was caught up in the NFL cheating scandal a few years ago where he was accused of ordering Patriots employees to tape opponents practices before important games.

It was no wonder that Belichick was universally slammed by pretty much everyone after his decision to go for it from his own 30 yard line in the 4th quarter last night’s Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts.  Here’s the situation.  The Patriots were winning by six points with a little over two minutes to go.  The Patriots faced 3rd and 2 from their own 28.  A first down in this situation wins the game.  The Colts defense stopped the Patriots on 3rd down, forcing a 4th and 2.  Instead of punting, Belichick ordered his offense back out onto the field to go for it.  They didn’t get it and Peyton Manning drove the Colts 28 yards for the game winning touchdown.

It’s obvious that the Patriots should have punted and forced the Colts to go 70 yards to try to win the game, right?  To steal a line from Lee Corso, not so fast my friend.  Belichick is way ahead of the curve.  According to research by David Romer at UC-Berkely, NFL teams punt way too often.

The Patriots convert first down from 2 yards out 76% of the time (ESPN’s stat from Sportscenter).  This stat means that by going for it, the Patriots had a 76% chance of winning the game.  Belichick only had to think that his defense would give up a touchdown to Peyton Manning and the Colts offense at a lower rate for it to be a good decision.  Manning had already driven the Colts to three 75+ yard touchdown drives in under two minutes in the game.  Belichick made the decision to go for it and this time it did not pay off, which brings me to why I love watching him coach a game.

Coaches in all sports, but especially football, almost always play it safe and go with conventional wisdom.  I’ve written about the lack of innovation in football before, mostly relating to play calling.  Last season I came up with a hypothesis:

I think it is because coaches fear being fired for not just doing poorly, but doing poorly a different way.  If coaches go with the conventional wisdom and fail, they will not be criticized as harshly as if they experiment and find new ways to fail.  If they succeed, like Mike Martz’s high-flying pass offense for the Rams called “The Greatest Show on Turf,” they are given some credit, but when the same coach experiences a minimal decline, he is criticized more harshly than a conventional coach.  For example, when Martz decided to pass in a late game situation, just like he had during other times in the game and failed, he was roundly criticized.  If he had run and failed, the players would have been criticized for not executing.   There is no upside for innovation here.

Today, I found out that this hypothesis has a name, via the Freakonomics blog:

If his team had gotten the first down and the Patriots won, he would have gotten far less credit than he got blame for failing. This introduces what economists call a “principal-agent problem.” Even though going for it increases his team’s chance of winning, a coach who cares about his reputation will want to do the wrong thing. He will punt, just because he doesn’t want to be the goat. (I’ve seen the same thing in my research on penalty kicks in soccer; it looks like kicking it right down the middle is the best strategy, but it is so embarrassing when it fails that players don’t do it often enough.) What Belichick proved by going for it last night is that 1) he understands the data, and 2) he cares more about winning than anything else.

It takes a leader to be willing to go against the grain, even when he knows that he will be excoriated by his peers.  He could have taken the easy way out.  If he did, today’s headlines would most likely read “Patriots defense no match for Peyton Manning and the Colts.”  Instead, we have “Colts make Pats pay for Bill’s unusually dumb decision.”

I think that this problem helps explain why big companies are slow to innovate.  They face the same problem.  Mid-level employees face the same problem as NFL coaches.  If they simply keep their heads down and do what 99% of the other workers would do, they will get credit if they succeed, but face much less criticism if they fail.  Most corporate cultures punish failing in a new way much more than failing the same old way.  If a mid-level employees actually do something innovative and it works, many times they are given less credit than they deserve.

I think this problem helps explain why startups are able to innovate much faster than big companies.  If big companies want to innovate faster, they need to empower their employees to go against the grain and make tough decision.  They need to actually mean it.  Companies need to view a failure for what it is, a failure, rather than get caught up in how the person failed.  This is not to say that someone who decides to pull the corporate equivalent of going for it on 4th and 20 from their own 5 yard line shouldn’t be criticized.  As long as the decision has a reasonable chance of success, they should be applauded for their innovation, rather than criticized for thinking outside the box.

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  • Great post. I sometimes marvel at the apparent lack of critical thinking in football. As you explain quite well, football fans, commentators and coaches would do well to analyze a situation based on its own merits, and not draw on their own faulty memories and their emotional biases to arrive at hasty conclusions. Instead, we’re left with a sport that is hampered by the status quo.

    This discussion reminds me of baseball. Most people would regard statistical analysis in baseball as too detail-oriented. Unfortunately, attention to detail only helps if you’re looking at the right details in the right way. Conventional wisdom in baseball rarely gives undue credit to the best power hitters, but often fails to reward productive players without success in the sexiest stat columns. While there are always technicians in the background who will run the numbers right, the fans and the media will overlook the guy who gets a lot of walks, plays solid defense, or forces high pitch counts. And let’s face it: baseball is a business. Fans who pay money to go to the stadium, and the media who determine which players are in the spotlight, will often dictate who plays and who makes what money.

  • I just wrote up a nice long reaction to this article, which got erased because I didn’t enter an email. Doh. Here are the highlights:

    I agree with your analysis of coaching and companies. Incentives to innovate are not aligned with criteria for keeping a job.

    Football won’t change – there are too many Monday morning quarterbacks that use hindsight to criticize decisions. I bet that problem affects public companies too, who have more “Monday morning quarterbacks” in their stockholders.

    Your stats aren’t really relevant. Defenses don’t defend a 2nd and 2 the same way they defend a 4th and 2 with the game on the line. If we knew Pats were converting 76% of the latter, that would be more relevant (and impressive). Doubt that’s the case though.

    Startups should use the fact that they answer to no-one to take advantage of the opportunities that others can’t. Large companies should align incentives to encourage similar behavior. Great article, very interesting read.

  • The only part I question about the whole situation is if you are going to go for it, why not run the ball twice and burn time outs?

    Here’s a little more info about the stats of it from the NY Times:

    A conversion on 4th-and-2 would be successful 60 percent of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53 percent of the time from that field position. The total win probability for the 4th-down conversion attempt would therefore be:

    (0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP (WP stands for win probability)

    A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their 34. Teams historically get the TD 30 percent of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

    Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than 30 percent chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it.

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