Strategic advantages in slanted information states


In games of strategy, we tend to assume anti-inductivity: As new edges are discovered, they end up quickly neutralized by either widespread adoption, or the development of counter-moves. But sometimes, that process is much slower than we’d naively expect.

One of the oldest truisms in football is that you need to establish the run in order to pass. One of analytics’ first major wins in football was showing that an efficient passing game actually did not require an effective run game in order succeed. But then data pointed to an even more radical conclusion: that there was no meaningful relationship between an effective play-action pass game and an effective run game, which seems absurd on the surface. A play-action pass is when a QB fakes handing the ball off to a runner to get defenders to mistakenly step up so there’s more open space to pass. It’s a play type that, on the surface, relies on deception and the subversion of expectations in a contextually-rich environment. But what the data over the past 10 years has born out is that you can have a very efficient play-action passing game without an effective run game.

The dynamic at play here is that NFL defenders will instinctively defend the run before the pass if they sense any potential for a run. Given that the run game was the most important part of NFL offenses up until about ~15-20 years ago, that dynamic makes sense, but there’s so much data available to coaches and front offices that it’s weird there would still be no meaningful relationship between play-action passes and the run game. You’d think you could just coach defenders to not bite on the fake. Defend the pass first, the run second. And while in isolated contexts this approach might work, there have been no major shifts in play-action efficiency over the past 5+ years.

From the lowest levels of youth football up to the second-highest tier of college football, game planning starts in the trenches”–i.e. it’s about the big guys up front being able to block the defenders in front of them, and the big defenders being able to beat those blocks. The game is largely a war of physical strength, and usually, at the lower levels of competition, quite mismatched given the talent disparities between good players and average players. In other words, for 99.9% of all people who play football, the game is one of brute strength based around running the football, because that’s all you need to win. You can apply high-level analysis to the game at this level but it wouldn’t make much of a difference, because analytic edges are not useful at a level where the dynamics at play are relatively simple.

So why are NFL defenders, the top .01% of the entire field, so thoroughly and consistently deceived by the mere threat of the run? Maybe it’s because they’ve been threatened by the run for the majority of their lives. They’ve been enculturated for years into a version of the game that changes radically when you get the highest level, and they just can’t adjust quickly enough. This disparity between past realities and current reality becomes a major edge for coaches who know they can manipulate defenders with just a little bit of ambiguity.

A couple takeaways: Suspended has spoken before about how lying is often prohibitively expensive enough to prevent people from consistently lying, given that they would rather be believed in the long term than not believed at all. In the case of play-action passing, it seems that the threshold for deception is so low that you can, within reason, continually deceive a defense given how embodied their knowledge is of the game. Their enculturation is so deeply embedded in their perception of reality that it can be manipulated without much of a long-term penalty incurred. Further, the majority of football coaches have had parallel experiences to the majority of football players, and as such may also privilege the run over the pass given their past experiences. Feedback loop exists that maintains at the professional level despite the edges that are being exploited–players believe the play-action pass, and coaches do, too, so the perceived reality maintains.

Second, I think the point about analytics applied to lower level of game states is interesting, sort of a reverse scenario of Collin’s WIFOM piece. You can gain an edge in WIFOM games by applying a higher level ontology than others. In the case of high school football, there’s no advantage in finding unexplored edges because the game state is too simple. Could you gain an edge by spamming play-action passes in high school? Sure. But the effective difference wouldn’t be great enough to warrant the work that goes into implementing a radically different game plan, and the discursive effort needed to convince an entire team of unbelievers. In other words, contextual fit will always supersede ontological complexity (if you can win with less, you should), even if the latter is better suited for comprehending the entire game state.