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Prospect Theory and football (Part 2): An example of risk aversion in offensive play calling

Applying behavioral economics to the game of football.


In my last article, I introduced Prospect Theory to explain the generally conservative nature of play-calling on first down. To summarize that article in one line, coaches often run on first down because running has a greater likelihood of providing benefits over the lifetime of an offensive possession than passing. Undertaking any task simply for the benefits, however, is only part of the reason we see more running than passing. The other reason, the primary reason, for this overall reliance on running is risk aversion. Risk aversion is a critical part of Prospect Theory, and states that most of what we do is done not because of the benefits we may receive but because we’re trying to reduce our exposure to risk.

Think about this example for one second: Imagine you’re coaching a team down by four points, the game clock is down to 0:08 and you’re on the opponent’s 15-yard line. Chances are you’re not going to run the ball. A number of factors influence your decision, but the ones that come to mind immediately are that running backs rarely break runs for 15 yards and that there are 11 defenders between your running back and the end zone. Too much can go wrong in those 15 yards so you probably won’t run it. Instead, as coach, you’ll call a pass play. Sure, a lot can go wrong with a pass and your receivers will likely be double-covered in the end zone, but even double coverage is preferable to a running back trying to break one for 15 yards in the waning seconds of the game.

How about an on-field example of risk aversion? Against Notre Dame, USC head coach Lane Kiffin witnessed his backup quarterback, Max Wittek, underthrowing his star wide receiver, Marquise Lee, on consecutive plays; both passes could have easily been intercepted. So Kiffin decided to run the ball on three consecutive plays against the Notre Dame defense.

If we look at this from a pure risk aversion standpoint, Lane Kiffin’s call is a safe, risk-averse one when all of the factors are added up. A redshirt backup quarterback (1) playing from behind (2) during his first full game (3) against a rival (4) is stressful enough. To add to the stress, a pick would have effectively ended the game (5). Given all of those risk factors, Kiffin determined that, while not ideal, a run, even into the teeth of the Notre Dame defense, was less risky than letting Max Wittek attempt another goal line pass. Further, given that USC had averaged more than 3.5 yards per rush against Notre Dame, it was a safe choice. Ultimately, USC was unsuccessful on three rushing attempts, wasting too much clock time in the process. The end result was an unsuccessful return to the pass on fourth down.

These are two obvious examples of risk aversion, and it’s a theme we see recurring in sports. In fact, behavioral economists argue that somehow, psychologically, we base our decisions primarily on risk avoidance; we do this so much that we are often unlikely to take risks that have even high probabilities for success because the fear of failure or loss has a greater impact on us than the thrill and reward of success. Remember the saying "no guts, no glory"? When we consider that risk aversion plays such a large part in our decision making process, we can examine the Kiffin call in another light.

Kiffin made his decision to run the ball by determining passing to be risky, right? But why? And was it actually safer to keep the ball on the ground? Though open to interpretation and highly subjective, we can examine this scenario given some undeniable facts.

First, USC was having minimal success running the ball that night, though the Trojans were sill averaging more yards per down than needed for the score.

Second, for the past two years, USC has been, without a doubt, a pass-first offense led by Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, and even with Barkley sidelined by injury, USC’s offense performed admirably to that point, putting up 186 yards passing.

Finally, even with a relatively green quarterback, USC still had two of the most dynamic receivers in the country.

Using his knowledge of his team and his opponent, Kiffin made a judgment call to run the ball because his team should have enough of an advantage to score without having to expose the ball to a tip or interception. In an alternate scenario, Lane Kiffin could – and probably should – have instructed his offense to continue passing the ball. In the timing-based pass offense, USC might have maintained the advantage and could have potentially exploited a CB 1v1 coverage, thus keeping the game close. The end result, however, was that USC was stuffed at the goal line on three consecutive plays, burning clock, and ultimately losing the game.

In a classic display of risk aversion, Kiffin led his team into a situation where it had a decided disadvantage instead of embracing the risks inherent in his strongest position group, one featuring two of the best receivers in the country.