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David Romer’s paper: postscript

Posted by Doug on May 16, 2006

For easy reference, here are the previous posts in the sequence: I, II, III.

Romer's paper cites two academic papers by former NFL quarterback Virgil Carter and Robert Machol. The first was written in 1971. I haven't read it, but it is described in The Hidden Game of Football, which was originally written in 1988 and then updated and re-released in 1998.

Carter and Machol also created a function that converts situations to point values. They did it slightly differently from Romer. What they did was to dig through the play-by-play and look at all the times a team had a first-and-10 on a given yard line. Then they record who scored next and how many points, and take the average. Here is how Carter and Machol's method was described in The Hidden Game:

In our study of 240 games in 1997, we found 783 first down plays from the 50 yard line (plus or minus 2 yards) . . . Of these 783 first downs, the offense scored next in 482 cases totalling 2473 points. The team on defense was the next to score 194 times for 1088 points. And 146 times neither team scored. Subtract 1088 from 2473, and you leave the offense with a plus of 1385 points. Divide by 783. With a first-and-10 at midfield, the offense has a point potential of 1.77.

Romer writes that this method is "considerably cruder" than his own. I found that a bit off-putting, but it's essentially true. In any case, the conclusions reached by Palmer, Thorn, and Carroll in The Hidden Game using Carter and Machol's method are generally similar to Romer's.

After reading the previous posts in this sequence, a friend of mine sent me this link, which is David Sklansky's analysis of the situation. I had never heard of the guy, but because he is a poker guru of some repute, I'm probably the last man in the country who can say that. My friend described him as, "somewhat of a poker theorist-genius whose thoughts on other topics are often interesting as well." His analysis is admittedly incomplete and he seems to be unaware of the work done by Romer et al, but the linked article is a concise and well-written summary of the relevant issues.

Finally, this one seems a bit out there but it's definitely worth thinking about. I stumbled across this article by Jason Scheib. I don't know anything at all about Jason Scheib, but he appears to be a pretty sharp guy and he has put a lot of thought into this idea. The idea is . . ., well, I'd better let him tell you what the idea is:

About a year and a half ago I took a pretty simple idea (A punt is a turnover) and began exploring it as far and in as many different directions as it would take me. Over that time it has grown into a turnover theory that gives a different perspective on the game of football. It is a theory based on redefining what turnovers are and using this new definition to see what a team can do to improve their net turnovers in an effort to win more games. This theory presents two significant implications: 1) a team would win more games if they never punt, and 2) a team that never punts would not just be employing a different strategy but would approach the game in a fundamentally different way, which would further add to their success.

This is not about taking more risks and punting less often. That could cost you games depending on when you decide to punt and when you decide not to. The key is to never punt. Never punting takes away the risk because it allows the averages to work in your favor. It also opens you up to different play calling opportunities, primarily on third down. The two go together and are dependent on each other in order to make this work.

Before you laugh, go read it. I have skimmed it a few times and honestly can't say I completely understand yet why going for it on 4th-and-14 is a good plan, but I am definitely intrigued by the idea of making your offense more efficient by playing in a four-down mindset at all times. Romer's analysis shows that you can get a slight advantage by making different decisions on fourth down. What I get out of Scheib's idea is that maybe you can get an even bigger advantage by looking at the third-down-fourth-down sequence as a whole, and making nontraditional decisions there.