I realize this is a soccer blog, but this was such a neat topic, I had to share. Via the Washington Monthly, we find that a researcher recently published a paper that claims football coaches are being MUCH too conservative on 4th downs in football. The conclusions of the researcher are that coaches should be going for it on 4th down a LOT more than they do. I admit to screaming ‘Go For It!’ at my TV often during the season, but what do I know?

Kevin Drum summarizes the paper’s conclusions quite nicely:

At the 50-yard line, you should go for it if you have less than five yards to go. At the 40-yard line you should go for it if you have less than seven yards to go. At the 35-yard line you should go for it no matter what. Beyond the 33-yard line, as you get into field goal range, the value of kicking rises and the "critical value" necessary to go for it declines steeply (though it stays above four yards all the way to the goal line). The dashed line summarizes actual coaching decisions over the course of the study and shows that, on average, coaches go for it only if they’re past midfield and have only about two yards to go. That’s much too conservative.

Romer’s analysis accounts for the probability of making a first down and then going on to score; the likely field position of your opponent depending on whether you kick or not; the likelihood of making a field goal; and a whole variety of other factors. Read the whole thing if you want to argue with him.

But the bottom line is simple: always go for it if you have less than three or four yards to go. Past midfield, you should go for it even in higher yardage situations until you get into field goal range. But even then, you should go for it if you have less then three or four yards to go.

Wow. Can you imagine the uproar if a coach went for it on his own 20 yard line with 2 yards left to go and then the opponent got the ball on downs and scored shortly afterward? He’d be lucky to keep his job. Consider this one. The ball is on the opponents 5 yard line but it’s the first quarter. The conclusion is still – go for it. Even though you’re in field goal range – the paper’s author still thinks going for the TD is better.

Although these findings contradict the conventional wisdom, they are quite intuitive. As described in the introduction, one case where one can see the intuition clearly is fourth and goal on the 2. The expected payoffs in terms of immediate points to the two choices are very similar, but trying for a touchdown on average leaves the other team in considerably worse field position. Thus trying for a touchdown is better on average.

The idea is that if you score – 7 points for you, but if you don’t make the 4th down, the opponent’s field position will be considerably worse than after a field goal and subsequent kickoff/return so you are more likely to PREVENT the opponent from scoring. That’s some long range and innovative thinking. The loss of the 3 points is better because you’ll be more likely to deny a TD on the flip side. Interesting.

Read the whole paper – it can get a bit dense with formulas and such, but the conclusions and examples are clearly written and easy to understand. A little light reading for any sports nerd. Too bad we’ll never know if he’s right. No coach in his right mind would try this in the NFL.