Packers’ Playcalling Too Conservative?


The answer, according to Chuck Bower, an astrophysicist from Indiana University, is yes.  But that’s his answer for pretty much every NFL team.   Bower and his partners created a computer program to evaluate NFL playcalling.  And their work pretty much validates what Andy has been saying for two decades: Teams would win more games by being more aggressive on fourth down.

From the New York Times’ Judy Battista:

“It seems like a lot of it is seat of the pants,” Bower said. “You put your finger in the air and try to judge the wind direction and make important decisions. It’s always, ‘Back when I was an assistant coach, we did this, and I remember that was bad, so I’m not going to do that again.’ I think a lot of these teams and coaches form opinions based on memories that statistically are not significant.”

But for a coach, job security is significant. He could be fired if he botches a call that costs his team a game, then tries to blame a computer. Coaches expect to be questioned about those decisions.

That is what inspired Bower and Frank Frigo, like Bower a backgammon player and a football fan, to begin working on a program in 2001 that would bring order to the thinking of fans who beseech coaches to go for it on fourth down and boo when the punter runs onto the field.

“People second-guess coaches for the decisions they make, and people act like they know what they’re supposed to do,” Bower said recently. “The question we had is, do they really know what they’re talking about? We set about to see if we could build a model to answer these questions.”

The program is called Zeus.

Zeus analyzes a decision by simulating the outcome over and over. If it finds that a run play produces a two-game-greater winning chance than a punt, it means that if the same situation were confronted 100 times, the run play would produce two more victories.

Bower said the program seemed to confirm his belief that coaches were usually too conservative in calling plays. When the program assessed decisions made on fourth downs, point-after touchdowns and kickoffs, it showed that teams, on average, cost themselves nearly a full victory in each 16-game season by making the wrong calls.

No doubt And will tout this as scientific backing for his consistent calls for Packer coaches to take a chance on 4th and 20 from their own 15 yard line.  (I can still hear him: “It’s the perfect time!  The other team will never expect it!”)

Alas, as Battista points out, the results of evaluations from last year are questionable.  Best playcalling?  The 3-13 St. Louis Rams.

Here’s a link to the entire article and here’s a link to the rankings.

One Response to “Packers’ Playcalling Too Conservative?”

  1. Joe Says:

    Gregg Easterbrook writes on this topic a lot. Here is one of his columns where he lays out the statistical reason for going for in on fourth and four or less.

    In this one he reports a computure simulation that tested his threory.

    I also agree with going for it more often. Next, I wish someone would compile data on the always frustrating and (I suspect) counter productive prevent defense.

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