I would like to recommend Revisionist History, a new podcast from Malcolm Gladwell. His third podcast, The Big Man Can’t Shoot, nominally covered Wilt Chamberlain and his struggles at the free throw line. But, as is often the case with Gladwell’s work, it’s about so much more than that.
Of particular interest to me was the academic paper Gladwell cited, which formed the meat of the podcast. It was written by Mark Granovetter, back in 1978, and is titled Threshold Models of Collective Behavior. Here’s a link to the paper, which I recommend reading if you have the time. But a couple of Granovetter’s examples resonated with me as being particularly relevant o us, and I would like to reproduce them here using a football analogy.
[Note: You may wonder why am I copying his work here? I find the application of this idea of threshold models of collective behavior to be worthwhile for our broader discussion, and I think the best way to encourage discussion of it here is to reproduce it in our world, rather than just telling you to go read a link. Full credit, of course, belongs to the author.]
Many analysts, myself included, think that NFL teams are way too conservative when it comes to going for it on 4th down. In general, coaches do not call plays in an optimal way, and we have long understood that part of the problem is no coach wants to take the heat for failing unconventionally. So we just assume that “the NFL” is overly conservative on this point.
Now, let’s make some assumptions. “Being aggressive” is not a binary thing — there are hundreds of aggressive/conservative options/decisions that come up in a season — but to simplify things, let’s assume that coaches can either be aggressive or conservative. And, let’s assume that right now, all 32 head coaches are conservative.
However, let’s assume that all 32 coaches think being aggressive is better than being conservative, but they also have resistant to switching from being conservative to being aggressive. And these resistances are not uniformly held: these 32 coaches each have different thresholds on when to make that switch. Let’s say the Patriots would be willing to be aggressive as long as just one other team was aggressive first. This would mean New England is very eager to be aggressive, but just doesn’t want the spotlight solely on them. And let’s say the 49ers would be aggressive as long as two other teams became aggressive first. And the Ravens would be aggressive as long as three other teams were aggressive first. [click to continue…]