The reluctance of NFL teams to adopt analytic approaches is sometimes attributed to the limitations of statistics in the sport. It’s true that there is much more Dark Matter in football than in baseball or basketball: Outside of quarterbacks and other skill-position players, we’ve barely begun to collect statistics on what the 22 players on the field are doing, let alone measure their worth. Fourth-down strategy, however, is one of the exceptions — a relatively narrow and well-defined problem. To use a familiar analogy, it’s quite hard to understand the morass that is American politics but quite easy to predict the results of upcoming elections by looking at the polls.
My view is that NFL coaches aren’t irrational or necessarily ignorant of the statistics as much as they are poorly incentivized to get these decisions right. The average NFL team has been owned by the same family or organization since 1980 — for the past 34 years. (By contrast, the average MLB and NBA team last changed owners in 1999.) Furthermore, because of the NFL’s prodigious popularity and its generous revenue-sharing policies, even losing or incompetent owners possess extraordinarily valuable products. (The Jacksonville Jaguars are worth $840 million, according to Forbes.) This is a culture that fosters extreme risk aversion. Going for it on fourth down is risky twice over: in the micro sense of staking more on the result of one play, and in the macro sense of defying custom and tradition.
If you play fantasy sports (I do… you do… we all do) then you should probably be glad that the NFL isn’t a hotbed when it comes to analytics. First, as Shawn Siegele has pointed out, it means that there will be skepticism as to the value of analytics, which will keep out potential new practitioners.
Second, it means that there are still advantages left to exploit. Baseball is getting closer and closer to being a random walk, which means that it’s closer and closer to coin flipping. We’re probably a good ways off from that happening in football.
I still have conversations every day on Twitter where people respond to my claim about something mattering (weight, age, etc.) with an outlier as if the outlier proves that there isn’t a trend. The longer that we can continue to have those (admittedly frustrating conversations) the longer there will be wood still to chop in terms of squeezing out the advantages that numbers can offer.