Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Futility of Financial Regulation: Lessons from Science and Professional Football

The Wall Street Journal does not make the connection explicit, the editors must realize that the sophisticated investors, who own luxury boxes (or even professional football teams), will get the message: financial regulation is futile. The offense has a scientific advantage over the defense. No matter what strategy the defense uses, the offense can find a way to overpower it. The Journal even gives scientific analysis to make this point. Of course, the possibility remains, of moving from a competitive capitalistic game to a more cooperative system will eliminate the need for offenses and defenses. Notice the similarity between the analysis of football and neoclassical descriptions of the economy.

Futterman, Matthew. 2009. "Behind the NFL's Touchdown Binge As Scoring Soars, One Professor Sees Parallels in Nature; the 'River Basin' Theory." Wall Street Journal (10 September).
The NFL has become so fast and efficient that last season, teams each scored 22.03 points per game, the highest since 1967, while all the league's 32 teams combined for 11,279 points—the most in NFL history.

The game has become less cluttered. Offenses averaged just 3.09 turnovers (interceptions and fumbles) per game, the lowest of all time by more than 10%, and offensive lines allowed just 4.04 sacks per game—also the lowest ever. Even place kickers set a new mark: They made a record-high 84.5% of their field-goal attempts.

Adrian Bejan a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, likens the NFL's evolution to a river's effect on its basin. (Stay with us, here.) Over time, a river relentlessly wears away its banks and, as a result, water flows faster and faster toward its mouth. When obstacles fall in its way, say, a tree, or a boulder -- or in the case of an NFL offense, beefy linebackers like the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis or the Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher -- it will figure out how to wear those away, too.

"The game is a flow system, a river basin of bodies that are milling around trying to find the most effective and easiest way to move," says Prof. Bejan. "Over time you will end up with the right way to play the game, with the patterns that are the most efficient."

In 1996, Prof. Bejan, who began following the NFL after coming to the U.S. from Romania to attend college, came up with a theory about natural phenomena known as the Constructal Law. The theory, he says, can be used to explain the evolution of efficiency in everything from river basins to mechanical design. By extension, he says, it could also be applied to the explosion of offense in the NFL.

Tom Lemming, the recruiting expert and analyst for CBS College Sports, says no one on the college level has figured out how to neutralize the speed of the spread offense, either. "The offense always sets the agenda, and the defense plays catch-up," Mr. Lemming says.

Considered more broadly, Constructal Law may be the closest thing to a grand unified theory for the evolution of sports. In a sports context, the river is the relentless search for the easiest way to score or win more often. In soccer, there is the indefensible through-ball, passed between two defenders to a striker sprinting into open space. In basketball, the two-handed set shot eventually gave way to finding the tallest, fastest players who could jump the highest and dunk.


Robbie said...

What rubbish. The reason the NFL teams score more points is because the league wants them to do so.

The NFL has made it real clear that points will scored by giving advantage to the offense.

For example:
Bump and Run coverage has been limited.
Roughing the passer rules.

If you eliminate these rules, you will see a lot more low scoring games.

If we design the regulators to act as opponents with rules that are weak, then you will get a system that looks like football.

Shag from Brookline said...

How about field goal efficiency distortion in scoring increases?

As for basketball, the 24 second rule brought about higher scores.

Kaleberg said...

The late Steven J Gould used to write about this and baseball, asking where all the .400+ hitters went. Of course, he pointed out that whenever things moved too far in one direction or another, the baseball powers that be would tweak a rule or two here and there and push things back into balance. The point is to have an interesting game, not an optimal one.

(I think Mary Renault touched on this in one of her books. Was it The Last of the Wine? Of course, there, the sport was wrestling, and some big Persian mutant who could crush any opponent without art was the spoiler.)