Forbes writer Allen St.John and materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez recently wrote a book titled Newton's Football on various intersections between science and our favorite sport. It's right up ANS' alley. Allen has an article at Forbes with an excerpt from the book:
"The theory that coaches were purely motivated by job security and didn’t want to go against the conventional wisdom, that didn’t quite satisfy me," says Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats. Week in and week out, Burke analyzed games and saw evidence that NFL coaches were costing their teams yardage, 1st downs, and, ultimately, games because of the questionable decisions they were making. He further noticed that those coaches almost invariably erred on the side of caution. But why?...
"In terms of team building, risk taking is good," Burke argues. He notes that in any given year the average NFL team enters a season with a Bayesian prior expectation of winning a Super Bowl that’s 1 in 32. "You’re a 31–1 underdog. You want to take chances," Burke explains. "It’s okay to miss the playoffs and win ﬁve games instead of seven. It doesn’t hurt you that much. But teams are very conservative. They'd rather win a few more games and avoid having a terrible record."I owe Allen and Ainissa a debt of gratitude for introducing me to former QB and legend of football analytics Virgil Carter. I was co-interviewed with Virgil for their book and had a few interesting discussions with Allen as well. Many of the topics we discuss here at ANS can be found throughout the book, so I can thoroughly recommend it.
And there can be a huge payoff to bucking the trend toward risk aversion and actively trying to innovate. Burke cites as an example the Saints signing quarterback Drew Brees. "When the Saints picked him up as a free agent, there was a chance that he was going to be a Hall of Famer, and there was probably an equal chance that he was never going to be able to throw a ball again because of the surgery on his shoulder. That’s okay. You want to do stuff like that. That’s a perfect example of a very high-variance strategy helping a team that had very little success in its entire existence to become a Super Bowl champion in just a couple of years."