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Football and Economics: The Real Game Theory

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01/20/2004

The New York Times runs an interesting piece on New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who is among the top geniuses in the NFL today. First, some backround info on Belichick. Prior to his head coach positions, he was a masterful defensive coordinator, a man so naturally inclined toward details, planning, and memorization that his father, a long-time coach at Navy, had him memorizing plays and analyzing Navy game films before he was 10 years old. Everywhere he has coached, he has turned his defense into a powerhouse unit. He has done this not because he automatically attracts the best player personnal everywhere he goes, but because he is an incredibly astute theorist. For Belichick, everything from Xs and Os to cutting players is an exercise in grand theory. He has been known to build defensive game plans that have shut down some of the most explosive offenses in recent history. So, what makes him so unique?

Economics. Or so says Belichick. He graduated from Wesleyan with an economics degree. Okay, a not-quite-Austrian program, but nonetheless, his mathematical and economics background have fed his penchant for strategy, deep analysis, and cost-benefit decisions. Where other coaches only see an individual's outward performance, Belichick lays out his plans based on deeper analysis. He measures the player's direct cost to the team and the various opportunity costs of keeping the player. The benefits of that player's performance are weighed against the assorted costs to determine whether ot not that player will advance the performance of the team, as a whole, while at his position. Apparently, he finds that using simple, incremental analysis adds to his problem-solving ability, which he relies on for both personnel and gameplan decisions. Belichick, in my opinion, though not necessarily the finest coach in the NFL, is the game's greatest master in terms of the particulars of planning and gameday management, and he accomplishes this as an economist and field academic.

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