Indecision in the pocket: An analysis of the relative success of fast and slow quarterback passing decisions.

by Elizabeth Veinott and Shane Mueller


Decisiveness is widely considered a positive trait in our society, and few roles typify the need for decisive action more than a quarterback making passing decisions. The quarterback's probability of completing a pass decreases precipitously in the first few seconds after the snap as options get eliminated, plans get disrupted, and lower-probability plays are attempted. This might suggest that fast plays will be most productive, which favors fast decision making in the pocket. However, as the time in pocket increases, opportunities also emerge, and quarterbacks attempt longer and more rewarding passes. Consequently, plays where a quarterback is patient and foregos fast small gains for the possibility of larger gains may in fact be more productive. To test this hypothesis, we examined the time-in-pocket data set for seven 2007 NFL teams reported by Alamar and Weinstein-Gould (2008). We found that for every team analyzed, most of the yardage gained in the air (i.e., to the point of reception) happened on slower plays, rather than faster ones. This pattern was similar for total yardage gained on passing plays (i.e, including the receivers' yardage gained on the ground), such that only one team gained substantially more yards on faster plays than on slower plays. These results suggest that in at least some time-pressured situations, opportunities may favor decision makers who do not fear indecision (whether they are quarterbacks or offensive coaches), but rather balance the risks and benefits of waiting to decide.

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