The search for intelligent life

If basketball analysts had a mascot, it would be either Shane Battier or his favorite shot, the corner three-pointer. The reason is clear enough: According to, three-point shots from the corners produce an average of 118.8 points per 100 possessions. How impressive is that? It's roughly equivalent to a dunk or layup attempt from the restricted area -- or to Michael Jordan's career statistics (an offensive rating of 118.0 points per 100 possessions).

You might expect NBA teams to flock to such a shot -- and you'd be right. From the 1997-98 season, when the NBA moved back the three-point arc, to the current one (through Feb. 11), the number of corner-three attempts has increased from 2.34 per team per game to 5.48, a 134 percent increase. The rate of progress has tapered slightly in the past few seasons as defenses have begun to put as much emphasis on the shot as offenses. But the NBA has become a dunks-and-treys league, proving that stat geeks and NBA Jam had it right all along.

If there is a sport in which video-game strategy and analytical correctness are most aligned, it is football. Since at least 1971, statistical analyses have demonstrated that kicking and punting are not only no fun but are also done far too often. Teams ought to be going for it much more, especially in fourth-and-short situations at almost any time and any location on the field. Attempts to chronicle NFL teams' gutlessness on fourth down, from Bill Barnwell's Thank You for Not Coaching column to The New York Times' Twitter-happy 4th Down Bot, have become a pastime unto their own.

And yet, coaches and offensive coordinators have not changed their approach one bit. In 1991, NFL teams went for it on fourth down an average of 14.6 times per season, or slightly less than once per game. By 2013, the number of fourth-down attempts had increased to ... 14.8 per team. According to 4th Down Bot, NFL teams kicked or punted when they should have gone for it 693 times in the past regular season, or 21.7 mishandled situations per team. (By contrast, they went for it when they should have kicked or punted only 16 times -- not per team but in the league as a whole.)

Although 4th Down Bot's conclusions are based on long-term averages of NFL games since 2000 and do not account for factors like the strength of a team's short-yardage offense or the weather conditions, you'd expect those to even out over the long run. Instead, every team in the league exhibited a strong bias toward its placekicker and its punter, instead of its quarterback, tailback and offensive line.

How much difference does this make? I estimate, from 4th Down Bot's data, that the typical NFL team sacrificed about half a win over the course of the 16-game regular season due to its inferior fourth-down strategy. That might not sound like much. But 0.5 wins over a 16-game football season is equivalent to five wins over a 162-game baseball season. Baseball players who produce about five wins per season, like Choo, are borderline All-Stars who are offered $130 million contracts.

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