Sorry, NFL Fans — A Tweeting Robot Is Probably Smarter Than Your Team's Coach

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To go, or not to go? Fourth-down decisions are among the toughest calls NFL coaches have to make. Most of the time they take the easy route and play it safe. And a lot of the time, they’re wrong. Enter the New York Times' newest staff member: the Fourth Down Bot. Based on years of statistics, the Bot analyzes what coaches do versus what they should have done.

David Leonhardt, editor of the Times website “The Upshot," joined Bill Littlefield to explain the brains behind the bot.

BL: What prompted The New York Times to create a robot character to analyze NFL play-calling?

The game is ball possession, and coaches are losing sight of that.

David Leonhardt, The New York Times

What folks on our team realized was that it would be possible to track every game and tell people when coaches are making the right call, when they're making the wrong call, when it's too close to call. And to do that we invented a robot who tweets madly during games.

BL: Now the fourth-down bot's best work is situational analysis. Here’s an update from last weekend — one of many like it: “Detroit punted on a 4th-and-1 at their 45. I would have gone for it.” How does the bot reach that sort of conclusion?

DL: What the bot looks at is it looks at all this history of the NFL, recent history, and sees what are the odds of going for it on fourth down? How long is the average punt? What happens when a team gets the ball at the 20-yard line versus the 40? And it puts all that into its analysis and comes out with an answer.

There's a simple way to think about this, though, if you don't love statistics. NFL offenses are vastly better than they used to be. When I was growing up in the '70s and '80s, they didn't gain nearly as many yards or score as many points as they do now. And as offenses have gotten better, what's happened is that the value of having the ball has increased. And the distinction between where you have it — whether you have it at your own 20 or the 50 — has declined. And NFL coaches don't seem to have adjusted to this.

BL: You have acknowledged that the bot does have flaws. What are those flaws?

DL: The main flaw is that it doesn't take into account the teams. It's always imagining an average offense against an average defense. I do think, though, that while that limitation is real, it has become something of a crutch. One of the most gratifying things for us has been the reaction in Buffalo. Many fans in Buffalo follow the bot, including the local journalists. And they have noticed that the bot has been criticizing the Bills and the Bills' coach, [Doug] Marrone, for being particularly conservative on fourth down.

And in fact, after the Bills-Dolphins game, a local reporter asked the coach about his fourth-down conservatism and specifically referred to the bot. And what [Marrone] said was, "Look, these analyses, they're just based on an average team. They're not based on my team." His criticism is sort of right, hypothetically, in that this is based only on the average team. But he's essentially taking points off the scoreboard.

BL: Coach Marrone also said, “I would be hard pressed for anyone, at that point in the game knowing my colleagues in this league, to see who would've gone for it in that situation.” I hope you can untangle that syntax. But is he right — or have other coaches for other teams begun to see the wisdom of the bot?

DL: He's brilliantly right — that's the problem. Coaches don't go for it in that situation. But notice, that's not actually a logical defense. He's not saying, "I'm helping my team win the game." He's just saying, "Hey, the other guys wouldn't have done it either." We did start to see, around 2008 and 2009, a rise in the percentage of times that NFL teams went for it on fourth-and-short.

Cade Massey, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has pointed this out. And then it reversed. They started to get more rational and then they stepped back. And I think a big part of that was that very well-known play in Indianapolis where Bill Belichick went for it on fourth-and-short, missed, the Patriots lost, and now we're basically back to where coaches have been for years.

BL: If the bot had a big-picture message for NFL coaches, what would it be?

DL: "Trust in your players." NFL offenses are fabulously productive today — trust in your players. And not only that but know that the other guys are good too. So if you punt when you're on the 50 and you give them the ball on the 20 or the 10, much of the time, a few plays later, they're going to be right back where they would have been if you hadn't punted. The game is ball possession, and coaches are losing sight of that.

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This segment aired on November 29, 2014.


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