I know this WSJ piece is about the NFL, but it’s still a fascinating statistical look at how successful conventional playcalling is.
… The NFL’s current roster of coaches is a very conservative bunch. And that might not be a formula for success.
A Wall Street Journal analysis of NFL play calling this season shows that—despite a legion of mathematicians, economists and win probability models urging them to take more chances—most of the league’s coaches still reach for the conventional choice by habit.
The Journal analysis examines how coaches played their hand this season across three broad categories of game management: fourth downs; play calling (blitzing on defense; passing on early downs or with the lead on offense) and special teams (going for a 2-point conversion and onside kicks when ahead).
I would argue there’s more than just habit at work here. There’s also the parity factor. When you don’t have a huge talent gap between teams — and say what you will, the gap in the NFL is way smaller than the gap in college — the consequences of coaches’ decision making at key times become magnified, especially those decisions that backfire. Wrapping oneself in conventional wisdom is an obvious defense to criticism.
Again, one of the great things about college football is that disparity in resources forces greater creativity in strategy to try to offset the disadvantage than we see in the pros. At least that’s the case at schools that don’t use their backup quarterbacks to field punts.