Sports Outside the Beltway

Parcells and Coughlin vs. the Computer

Astrophysicist Chuck Bower and former world champion backgammon Frank Frigo have designed a computer program that calculates the risks and rewards of various plays in a football game. They compared last Sunday’s actual play calling in crucial situations by the Dallas Cowboys’ Bill Parcells and New York Giants’ Tom Coughlin to what the computer says they should have called.

Cowboys-Giants versus Computer

So, how did the Cowboys’ and Giants’ coaching staffs perform in their respective decisions? Dallas faced fewer tough decisions (four shown in the table) and performed quite well, missing only one. That 1.5 percent GWC error for attempting a long field goal early in the game got a moderate confidence score of 5, meaning extreme factors (such as misevaluation of the teams’ customized characteristics) could lead to a reversal of ZEUS’ play-call choice.

Often, coaches get condemned by the media for “questionable” play calls after a loss. Sometimes, these criticisms are completely unfounded and based merely upon “playing results” or second-guessing. Unfortunately for the Giants’ coaching staff, that wasn’t the case Sunday. New York stumbled on six of the nine critical decisions analyzed here, and five of the six had confidences of 10.

It’s pretty complicated stuff and certainly counter-intuitive to most football fans. It turns out that going for the TD rather than the field goal and going for it on 4th down rather than punting is the better choice far, far more often than coaches do it. Coaches tend to be risk minimizers, apparently, rather than purely rational.

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