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Beating the Odds

Going for It

Have you ever debated football strategy while watching a game? I suspect you never debated it quite the way David Romer did in 2005. Romer, an economist at UCal Berkeley, studied fourth-down situations to see whether teams should punt as often as they do. He concluded that teams should go for it more often.

A recent article on SportsIllustratedCNN.com profiles a high school football team that goes way beyond Romer: It never punts. It goes for it ALL the time. In fact, the Pulaski Academy Bruins don’t even include a punter or kicker on the roster.

Coach Kevin Kelley cites percentages to back up his approach. His game plan, besides being effective, makes you wonder about all the other sports strategies that are accepted as common wisdom.

As Mark Twain said, “It’s what you know that just ain’t so.”

Should baseball teams sacrifice? Should they pay more for starting pitchers or for relievers? When should a hockey team pull its goalie?

Just to hear about coaches (and researchers) challenge norms makes the game more fun.

Bill James was ignored, then shunned, when he wondered, in print, if batting average was the best way to measure a player’s value. Now virtually everyone in baseball uses his preferred measuring stick — on-base percentage.

Take the issue even further and take a look at conventional training methods. Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Steve Carlton used to strengthen his arm by forcing his hand down into a bucket of rice. Is that the way anyone else trains? Is it the way EVERYONE should train?

Romer and the Pulaski football team show one thing: that common wisdom is too often just common.


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