NFL coaching decisions cost 0.73 wins per team
By making bad decisions on fourth down, NFL coaches are sacrificing almost three-quarters of a win per season. That's from Matt Meiselman, who crunched some numbers with Brian Burke and posted on Brian's site.
In 2012, the Cleveland Browns were the "worst", sacrificing a probabilistic 1.02 wins by making 42 "wrong" decisions. The Packers were the least "worst", giving up only around half an expected win. I would have expected New England to represent well in this measure, since Bill Belichick has often been touted as a sabermetrically-savvy coach, but the Patriots were only a bit better than average, at 0.6.
Those numbers are based on expectations for an average team. It's quite likely that they overstate the cost, if the probabilities vary a lot based on quality of team. My suspicion is that the quality effect is pretty small, because the spread of "wrongness" is so narrow. In fact, the spread suggests to me that coaches are generally following the same "book" of conventional wisdom, with individual differences being pretty minor.
The article implies that the losses are due to coaches generally being risk-averse, but doesn't give the numbers. Is *every* bad decision caused by playing it too safe? 95 percent? 50 percent? I don't know the answer. My gut says ... I dunno, I'll guess 92 percent of cases are when the coach should have gone for it and didn't, instead of when he shouldn't have and did. Matt/Brian, if you're reading this, am I close?
I'm shocked at how high the numbers are. Losing 0.73 wins is huge, considering that the difference between a playoff team and an average team is only, what, two games out of sixteen?
I'd bet that's by far the biggest in-game coaching factor in any major sport (leaving out the decision of who plays). In baseball, it's the equivalent of 4.6 games per 162, which is about the same percentage of distance to the playoffs. But I can't see that MLB managers would have anything near that much influence.
At the Sloan convention, there was a lot of talk about how analytics people can increase their influence ... like, what to do or say to get coaches and management to listen to us numbers geeks.
But, in this case, I think there's an easier path. Any time there's a fourth-down decision, the TV broadcast could put the probabilities on the screen. Like, for instance, "teams that go for it should be expected to win 48% of the time, while teams that punt should win only 30% of the time." That's simple enough for viewers to understand ... which means, fans will be second-guessing the coach based on the numbers, rather than random feelings. It would still be fun to discuss ... the ESPN guys could argue about why the percentages don't apply in this particular case, because the offense is poor, or the defense has momentum, or whatever.
In any case, it would change the nature of the second-guessing. Right now, a coach may attract 1 pound of criticism when he plays it by the book, and 5 pounds when he goes for it. With the probabilities on the screen, maybe the 1:5 ratio will immediately change to 1:3 or something, and then, over time, as the stats gain acceptance, all the way to 1:1. Then, you've reached the tipping point where the coaches' incentives change. Now, they take more flak, and sacrifice more job security, when they *don't* go by the percentages. It wouldn't take long, I suspect, for things to change after that.