Final Fourth Down Thoughts

I hope you all enjoyed the 4th down series.  Thanks again to Jared for doing the research.  Today I wanted to give a few thoughts of my own about the data and its implementation.  (Go read if you haven’t yet, or see the 4th Down tab above for the strategy chart).

It will surprise nobody that I come down on the side of being more aggressive.  The simple fact is that Coaches have been PROVEN to make sub-optimal decisions in certain situations.  While we don’t know for sure why this happens, I agree with Jared that the most likely reason is essentially “groupthink” or a “herd mentality” along with slightly misaligned incentives.

The coach is incentivized to KEEP HIS JOB, not to win.  Normally those things go hand in hand, and it’s very difficult to keep your job if you don’t win.  However, in certain game situations (for example when a team is losing by a lot) coaches clearly make decisions that aren’t aimed at maximizing the odds of winning, like kicking field goals to minimize the margin of loss.  Additionally, the “optimal” decision for coaches is NOT “whatever provides the greatest chance to win”.  It’s more complicated than that.

The “optimal” decision, given the coach’s incentives, is one that achieves TWO goals; win the game, AND minimize criticism of said coach.

Looking at the results, I do not believe all of these coaches are ignorant of the statistically “optimal” decisions.  Some likely are, but given the amount of money at stake and the number of very smart people in league front offices, you can be sure at least a few coaches realize what they’re missing.

The upshot is that this represents a potentially large INEFFICIENCY in the way the game is currently played.  Some day a coach will take advantage of it.  However, note that just because you play the odds correctly doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded.  This may be another reason for coaches’ reticence.   This “aggressive” strategy WILL WORK, but not every time (as several commenters have noted).  The benefits will only be clear after a LONG time.  Most coaches don’t have the job security to wait that long while being criticized by beat writers for whom anything with a decimal is considered “analytics”.

While I hope (and expect) Chip Kelly to be among the more aggressive coaches in the league, I think it’s EXTREMELY unlikely that he makes a significant departure from what we see now.  At the end of the day, Chip wants to keep his job.  Unfortunately, such incentive misalignment, however slight, inhibits the pace of innovation in the sport (as it does in many industries).

I will certainly keep an eye on Chip’s 4th down strategy and we’ll discuss it here during the season.

I’d also like to address the points made by a few commenters about the overall utility of something like the 4th Down Strategy Chart.

– First, as explained in the first post, each team would, in practice, adjust the chart to account for the relative strength of the opposing defense.  This is not a one-size-fits-all chart.  However, given the HORRIBLE success rates, its pretty clear that team-to-team differences are not accounting for the overall results.

– I would not, though, blindly follow that chart.  The research explicitly excludes end of half and end of game situations.  TIME REMAINING becomes a huge factor in those cases, completely altering optimal strategy.

– I would, however, ALMOST NEVER PUNT with less than 2 yards to gain on 4th down.  It is extremely difficult for a defense to stop the offense from gaining just 1 yard.  I get the sense that many people don’t realize just how small a distance that is.  Today’s homework is to grab a ruler and measure out three feet (a yard).

Also, let’s attack this psychologically.  Think back to last season or picture yourself during a game. Your defense has just forced the offense into 4th and 1.  Are you hoping for a punt? Or are you hoping the offense goes for it, so that your team can stop it and gain “momentum”?

I don’t care where on the field that situation takes place, most people are hoping for a punt (as is the defense!).

In general, if you (as an offense) are doing things the defense WANTS YOU TO DO, you’re doing it wrong!

Several people have mentioned the “momentum” surrendered by going for it on fourth down and not converting, and while I think the concept of “momentum” is largely exaggerated (though not nonexistent), you must also factor in the demoralizing effect that converting has on the opposing defense.

– Even on your own 1 yard line, I’d strongly consider going for it on 4th and 1.  The median NET punting average for the league last year was approximately 40 yards.  Using this number tells us that if you punt from your own goal line, you can expect the other team to start its possession around the 40 yard line.  For some teams, that’s already in field goal range.  For everyone else, it’s just a few yards outside.

So, if you punt from your own goal line you are essentially giving the other team 3 points, with the potential for 7.  If you go for it and fail, in all likelihood you are giving the other team 7 points.  However, if you go for it, you have decent odds of converting, meaning you’ve now add the possibility of scoring 7, scoring 3, and allowing 0 points to the situation.

At a high level, going for it sounds like the better option to me.  Now that I have last seasons play-by-play data (procured last weekend), I will take a look and see if that’s actually the case.  Our 4th Down Chart suggests it is.

– I would ALMOST NEVER punt after crossing midfield. Unless it’s a late-game situation or there are a large number of yards to gain (8-9+), IT DOESNT MAKE ANY SENSE!.  You’re already passed midfield, meaning you’re not guaranteeing the other team any point if you don’t convert.  This is where I expect Chip to be aggressive.  It’s a more “defensible” decision and less likely to immediately back-fire.  That means the reputational risk is minimized, allowing the coach to weigh the “win the game” side of his incentives more strongly.

– Lastly, I completely agree with the chart regarding 4th and 4 or less yards to go situations in field goal range.  Kicking a field goal when you’ve got 4th and 1 is ridiculous (unless its late in the game or time’s running out in the first half).  It’s 1 yard, go get it.  It’s the statistically optimal decision, and 7 points is a LOT more impactful than 3.  For those of you who buy into the “momentum” game, how much does 3 points get you?  Close to none… Kicking a field goal with less than 4 yards to gain is a gutless (and stupid) decision.

That’s all for now.  I’ll be on vacation, starting tomorrow and running through next week.  So probably no posting.  I encourage you to explore the archives though, I’ve tried to make it as easy as possible by giving you tools and shortcuts on the sidebar.


3 thoughts on “Final Fourth Down Thoughts

  1. I’m relatively new to this site; great job with the use of graphs and statistics. You could probably teach at the college level in some sort of sports statistics/analytical class.

    As an Eagles fan, I’m spoiled by people like you, Tommy, Jimmy, Tim and Sheil- thanks for what you do. Have a great vacation and I’ll check back on your site in a week or so

  2. While I tend to agree that it’s better to be aggressive and agree with most of your stance. I have to disagree with going for it from your own goal line. This primarily comes down to the fact that I’ve never seen a 4th and 1 from the one yard line. Generally you are looking at a fourth and one from your own 9 as the closest point to your own goal with 1 yard to go. With an average punt of 40 yards, for most teams you make them have to get a first down to have a try at a field goal.

    • Great point, I obviously wasn’t thinking when I wrote that. Clearly you cant have a 4th and 1 at your own 1 yard line. That alters the punt equation, however, I’d still like to see somebody take a very aggressive 4th and 1 strategy. For what its worth, the necessary ingredients would be a strong run-blocking line, strong running back, and a good option system to provide some misdirection for the defense (which buys the moment of hesitation the offense needs). The Eagles may have all of these pieces this year, along with a coach who just might have the guts to risk the heat if things don’t work the first time.

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