Going for it on fourth down
The norm in football coaching is to punt on fourth down if you are outside of field-goal range or attempt a field goal if you are within range. About the only exceptions seen nowadays are four-down situations, that is, end-of-game situations where the team will lose the game for sure if they kick.
But is that the right course of action?
Thoughtful people who have examined it dispassionately have concluded that, other than end-of-half, clock-management situations (See my book Football Clock Management for more details on that.), you should usually go for it on fourth down regardless of field position. The basic reason is that you will succeed most of the time when the distance to go is less than four yards or at least often enough that you will score more points and win more games in the long run going for it on fourth down than kicking the ball. Even where the choice between going for it and kicking a field goal yields an equal expectation of points, the next play is better if you go for it and fail than if you kick a field goal. After kicking a field goal, you have to kick off, which usually gives the opponent a better field position than they would get if you turned the ball over on downs.
Carroll, Palmer, and Thorn in The Hidden Game of Football
In The Hidden Game of Football book, authors Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer, and John Thorn said that coaches kick too often on fourth down. Bob Carroll is the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association and one of the editors of Total Football, the Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League. Pete Palmer is a retired radar engineer and a baseball and football statistician. John Thorn is a writer and Palmer’s coauthor on various statistically-oriented books on baseball and football.
Chapter 10, “Kicking up a storm” in The Hidden Game of Football is where the authors discuss the excessive amount of fourth-down kicking in the NFL. One point that Carroll, Palmer, and Thorn make that the study below does not is that coaches should go for the first down or touchdown rather than the field goal even at the end of a game when the field goal would tie the game. Basically, you have a higher probability of winning by pursuing a touchdown than you do tying the game then taking your chances in overtime. A game-winning touchdown in the hand is worth more than an overtime in the bush.
Dr. David Romer, University of California Berkeley economics professor
In the summer of 2002, Dr. Romer made a research presentation called “It's Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say?” to the National Bureau of Economic Research. He analyzed 732 games in the 1998, 1999, and 200 seasons. He said coaches should be far more “aggressive” at going for a first down on fourth down. Romer cites the Hidden Game of Football among other sources and asserts that his analysis is more detailed than theirs. I agree and I expect the Hidden Game authors would as well. So I will only discuss the Romer study in the rest of this article.
You can get a complete pdf copy of the revised 2005 version of the Romer study at www.econ.berkeley.edu/users/dromer/papers/PAPER_NFL_JULY05_FORWEB_CORRECTED.pdf.
Carter and Machol
Dr. Romer also credits a 1971 study by Virgil Carter and Robert E. Machol (“Operations Research on Football”) which appeared in the March-April, 1971 issue of Operations Research journal) in which they calculated the values of being at various yard lines and a 1978 study by the same pair which examined fourth-down decisions (“Optimal Strategies on Fourth Down”) which appeared in the December, 1978 issue of Management Science journal.
He says their studies took a somewhat different tack but arrived at essentially the same conclusions.
For much more detail on the subject of going for it on fourth down, see my book Coaching Freshman & Junior Varsity High School Football.
I think Dr. Romer’s conclusions are correct as far as they go. They need to be refined to cover the end-of-half situations he deliberately ignored. They need to be modified slightly for the other levels below the NFL. And they need to be reduced to a set of rules that can be used effectively by a special teams coach in the heat of battle during a game. Taking Dr. Romer’s 42-page, mathematical-formula-laden report to the sideline during a game would not be helpful.
On the other hand, those coaches who reject Romer’s study out of hand are dead wrong. Before they can reject it, they must understand it. Then they need to make a good faith effort to convert it to usable during-game rules as I have above. If, after that effort, they still find it is not workable, then Dr. Romer needs to go back to the drawing board.
What is more likely happening is that ignorant coaches who do not understand the study and do not want to make the effort to understand it will try to use intellectually-dishonest arguments to disparage it. See my article on intellectually-dishonest arguments for details on what I mean by that.
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John T. Reed
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