Rams-Jaguars: Fear of Losing

I’m at a disadvantage this week to comment on the specifics of the game — when the only sister of RamsHerd gets married, it’s reason enough for me to be torn from the television. (I will have more to say upon reviewing the tape.) But I was able to follow along on my cell, as we lost the lead, regained the lead, lost it again, and mounted an improbable two-minute drill to the 9-yard line, poised to win.

How improbable was the drive? It was the only successful two-minute drill I’ve seen all year, including preseason, live scrimmages and practices. But it ultimately fizzled into a game-tying field goal. The Rams kicked off and never saw the ball again. From the AP writeup in the Florida papers this morning:

Should the winless Rams have gone for the win?

“It was too close,” Spagnuolo said. “We never wanted something (bad) to happen and we just couldn’t take the chance. I think it was the right thing to do.”

Immediately, I thought of the “Decision Theory in Football” writing at Advanced NFL Stats:

Prospect theory says that people fear losses more than they value equivalent gains. Humans evolved with a tendency to try to avoid loss. We’re usually more upset with ourselves when we misplace a $20 bill than we are happy when one falls out of the laundry. This tendency has been borne out time and time again in clinical experiments and other studies.

In football, this means that decisions are warped because coaches would fear a loss in win probability (WP) more than an equivalent gain in WP. The chart below illustrates this concept. According to prospect theory, the “joy” from a 0.05 gain in WP is less than the “pain” from a 0.05 loss in WP.

In this instance, the choice was stark, and difficult. Pass complete in the end zone = WIN. But a pass complete in front of the end zone most likely = LOSS. This removes Bulger’s best passing option, the quick-developing slant play. Look at Bulger’s splits this season:

Pass length Comp Att Comp % QB rating
1-10 yd 30 41 73.2% 98.1
11-20 yd 18 30 60% 80.4

While a pass incomplete might still leave enough time for the game-tying field goal, which yields something around a 50% (the result of a coin flip) win probability, there’s no guarantee that the official game clock will be friendly. Especially in a visiting stadium.

Like a lot of Rams fans, including Van over at TurfShowTimes, I was dismayed by the field goal and the decision to go to OT. I just didn’t have a good feeling in my gut, considering how strongly the Jaguars offense performed in the second half. But there is a lot of truth in Spagnuolo’s statement. It was awful close, and it was a very difficult call.

They chose the “safe” alternative, playing not to lose, and lost anyway. But the coach ultimately put the onus of the win or loss on his players, by kicking the field goal. Alternately, if the Rams had gone for the win and failed, that loss would be on the coach’s shoulders.