Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"Incremental Analysis, With Two Yards to Go," by David Leonhardt. The New York Times, 1 February 2004.

David Romer, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley,published an academic paper, an analysis of whether professional football teamspunt more often than is rational. He concluded---using phrases like "Bellmanequation" and "dynamic-programming analysis" (gleaned by Leonhardt)---thatteams do punt too much. It seems that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick(who majored in economics at Wesleyan University) responded to a reporter thathe had read the paper, and added, "I don't know much of the math involved, butI think I understand the conclusions and he has some valid points." In a gamesoon after that, Belichick decided to go for a first down instead of "a surepunting situation in the NFL," and made it. Romer surmised that the coach wasusing analysis instead of gut instinct. Leonhardt's article reported that"Romer's paper is not the only ivory-tower research that has made its way intothe coach's head." The Patriots coaching staff wanted statistician HaroldSackrowitz (Rutgers) to critique the team's chart that tells coaches when to gofor two points. (Sackrowitz had previously been quoted as saying that "teamstry for a two-point conversion too often after scoring a touchdown.") Thisarticle's teaser, "The Patriots may or may not engage in a little 'hyperbolicdiscounting'" at the Super Bowl, appears to have been answered.

--- Annette Emerson