What Does Math Have To Do With The Super Bowl?

When you think of football, you may think of physical strength, endurance and brute force. But do you ever think about the careful planning, analysis and strategy involved? You should!

Super BowlLuck or Strategy?

Every so often, you’ll see a coach seemingly “roll the dice” and go for a play on fourth down. Is that play pure chance? Or is that a calculated risk?  For instance a surprise onside kick to start the second half that catches everyone off guard.

Surely in such a game with tackles, sacks, and other feats of strength, there can’t be any room for statistics or probability on that playing field or the only numbers you’ll see are for keeping track of touchdowns or yards gained.  There’s nothing more to it than that, is there?

Wrong! There’s a lot of statistical analysis behind each play.  Here are several examples.

It’s Fourth and goal.  Do you kick the Field Goal or try to get the Touchdown?

Here’s an easy example.  Suppose the Seattle Seahawks on fourth downs are 20% to get a touchdown and 90% to make a field goal with 20 yards or less.  It’s fourth down and it would be an 18 yard field goal attempt.  Should they go for it?  Let’s see.

Expected value if they go for touch down – 0.2 x 7 points = 1.4 points.

Expected value if they kick a field goal – 0.9 x 3 points = 2.7 points.

Normally the team will go for the field goal on fourth down, and here Statistics shows that they do better in the long run by kicking the field goal than trying to get the 7 points and possibly getting nothing.

Of course, if the game is in the last minutes of the fourth quarter that may change things, but you can see now see why teams don’t just “go for it” on fourth down.

Run or pass?

The defense is always trying to guess whether the opposing offense will run or pass.  Similarly, the offense will try to guess which play the defense is expecting.  The goal of the offense is to maximize yards gained.  How do both sides make their guesses?  Again, Statistics comes into play.  Both sides have to consider these variables which go into the likelihood of success or failure of a run or pass –

  • Number of successful passes versus blocked passes against the team this season.
  • Number of successful runs versus unsuccessful runs against the team this season.
  • Individual statistics of the defense – sacks, tackles, blocked passes.
  • Individual statistics of the offense – completions by QB versus attempts, sacks, being hurried, catches versus thrown to, interceptions.
  • Defense and offensive success on third down, fourth down.  For instance, a team may convert on third down 40% of the time and 60% of the time on fourth down.

These are all numerical values, and from these numbers we could calculate the probability of success of both a pass and a run attempt.  The defense would be able to make the same calculations.  You may ask, ‘’But if the offense runs the ball well, then why doesn’t the defense just line up for a running play each time?’’  This would start to take us deep into game theorem and min-max strategy, but you can see that both offensive and defensive coaches are using Statistics and Mathematics to plan their plays.  What about when a coach “goes with his gut?”  Nope, that’s still a decision based on probabilistic outcomes.

Statistics Are Important to Sports

Even in a game that appears to be a purely physical battle, Statistics comes into play as a driving force behind the major decisions made.  Each call made, even those last minute changes Peyton Manning calls on the line, have a Statistical foundation supporting the decision.  As the Seahawks and Broncos are preparing for this year’s Super Bowl, there is little doubt each team is studying the other’s statistical tendencies to have a plan for each potential situation.  Commentators and experts are using those same statistics to make predictions of which team will win and by how much.

So who will win this year’s Super Bowl?  Start researching the statistics and see if you can figure it out!

This post was contributed by Tutor.com Senior Mentor and Football Fan Josh R. Thanks Josh! 

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