Game Strategy

Who doesn't enjoy second-guessing coaches?  Aside from the smug feeling of superiority, it's interesting to debate the best strategies.  On this page, you'll find a list of different questions we've had during the course of watching games, as well as our attempts to determine whether or not the coach goofed.  Have a particular strategic question you'd like answered?  Tell us about it.

Football:

  • Have you ever breathed a sigh of relief when the opposing team sent out the punting unit on 4th and short?  Or booed when your own coach sent out the kicker?  Does it pay to be cautious and play for field position or are you better off trying for a new set of downs?
  • In certain situations it's obvious whether to kick the extra point or go for two following a touchdown.  The conventional wisdom is that you kick the extra point unless it's late and (after scoring the touchdown) the margin is one of a few particular numbers (e.g., -2, +1, +5, etc.).  But are these the only situations in which it makes sense to go for two?  We examine the optimal strategy for the case where a team trails by 14 before scoring a touchdown to cut the lead to 8.
  • When a team protecting a one-point lead scores a late touchdown, they usually kick the extra point to go up by 8.  Does it make sense to attempt the two-point conversion to make it a two-possession game?
  • If a team trails by a point late in the game, does it make sense to concede a score to the offense to expedite possession of the ball?
  • When leading by 8 points after a touchdown, naive two-point conversion "cheat sheets" suggest attempting a two-point conversion to go up by 10.  When is this strategy optimal?
  • Are all turnovers created equal?  Are interceptions more damaging than fumbles, or vice versa?  Does it matter?
  • Our strategy discussions are based on maximizing the probability of winning the game.  Another reasonable criterion is maximizing expected point differential.  When do these objectives result in the same optimal strategy and when do they differ?  We answer this question by assessing the marginal value of an additional point scored.

    Baseball:

  • When does bunting to advance the runner make sense?  Will a successful bunt improve the offense's chances of winning the game?  Using 12 seasons of Major League Baseball data, we evaluate when bunting is beneficial and when it is detrimental.  The results show that in most cases, bunting is a losing strategy.

    Basketball:

  • Many basketball analysts feel strongly about whether or not to foul your opponent when protecting a three-point lead.  The thinking goes that by immediately fouling (before a shot can be taken), you prevent your opponent from attempting a potential game-tying three-point field-goal.  Which is the better strategy?
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    Copyright 2005-2009 David H. Annis, Ph.D.
    Last Modified October 25, 2009