Market failure NFL-style

>> Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Last night's NFL game featured the following situation: New Orleans takes over on downs at midfield with 1:37 left and an 11-point lead. Atlanta has one time out. This means that if New Orleans simply kneels down four times Atlanta will get the ball back with approximately seven seconds left (each down consumes roughly 45 seconds between snaps if the team with the ball does nothing but kneel in the victory formation, and the clock stops after a change of possession).

If New Orleans doesn't want to turn the ball back over with seven seconds left, they can just run around a bit on the fourth down snap, and/or take a little extra time off on each kneel down play by having Drew Brees retreat five yards, and the clock will be at zero. In any case turning the ball over with seven seconds left and an 11-point lead makes it completely impossible for Atlanta to score 11 points.

So here's what they do: They run the ball up the middle on first down and their center gets injured. By rule, this means the clock stops and New Orleans is charged with a time out (this rule is in place to stop teams from faking injuries to stop the clock). They run another rushing play on second down and Atlanta uses its final time out. They run again on third down and fumble. Atlanta takes over with 1:20 left. Atlanta takes 50 seconds to get into FG range. They kick the FG to make it a one-score game. They then recover the onside kick. They have the ball at midfield with 25 seconds left and non-trivial chance to send the game into overtime.

Through all of this none of the three announcers, who include a very highly regarded former and future NFL coach and a former NFL quarterback, note that the game would have been over long before if New Orleans' coaching staff, with a combined salary several million dollars a year, had any understanding of the relevant rules.

Stuff like this happens every week.

Serious question: Why? It's not because coaches are too stupid to understand the application of rules that are comprehensible to an intelligent 12-year-old. Football is a complex game on a variety of levels, and the average fan (like me) is completely unqualified to construct a functioning offensive game plan or a capable defense, let alone teach proper technique to players etc. But I'm qualified to add 45 to 45, get 90, subtract it from 97, and draw the appropriate conclusion.

In other words, this kind of thing would seem to pose something of a problem for adherents even the mildest versions of efficient market theory. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar business. Coaches are paid millions of dollars to win games. And yet they continue to fail to take whatever simple structural steps it would take (like employing someone to tell them what to do in these situations) to maximize their chances of winnning.

On a related note, see this.


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