Serial correlation in National Football League play calling and its effects on outcomes

Noha Emara, David Owens, John Smith, Lisa Wilmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


We investigate the strategic behavior of highly informed agents playing zero-sum games under highly incentivized conditions. We examine data from 3455 National Football League (NFL) games from the 2000 season through the 2012 season, and categorize each play as “rush” or a “pass.” We find that the pass-rush mix exhibits negative serial correlation: play types alternate more frequently than an independent stochastic process. This is a seemingly exploitable strategy, and we find that this serial correlation, according to two distinct measures, negatively affects play efficacy. Our analysis suggests that teams could profit from more clustered play selections, which switch play type less frequently. Our results are consistent with teams excessively switching play types in an effort to be perceived as unpredictable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-132
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics
StatePublished - Aug 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Applied Psychology
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Economics and Econometrics


  • Game theory
  • Matching pennies
  • Mixed strategies
  • Serial correlation


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