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Go for it on fourth down!

- February 2, 2014

At some point in today’s Super Bowl, it is likely that at least one of the teams will face a tricky call about whether to go for it on fourth down. Two academic papers offer some guidance.

First, in a 2002 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper, David Romer analyzed data from the first quarter of every regular season game in 1998-2000 to try to estimate the average gains from going for it on fourth down as opposed to either punting or attempting a field goal.  His finding was that teams are overwhelmingly more conservative than they should be on fourth down. Romer writes:

The results are striking. The analysis implies that teams should be quite aggressive. A team facing fourth and goal is better off on average trying for a touchdown as long as it is within 5 yard of the end zone. At midfield, being within 5 yard of a first down makes going for it on average desirable. Even on its 10-yard line — 90 yards from a score – a team within 3 yards of a first down is better off on average going for it. In practice, however, teams almost always kick on fourth down early in the game.

In an even earlier 1978 article in the journal Management Science, Virgil Carter and Robert E. Machol looked at data from five years (1972-76) worth of NFL games and came to the conclusion that teams in their opponents’ half of the field kick field goals much more often than they should either go for it on fourth down or punt. Why? They speculate:

We believe the reason for this paradox is that coaches do not have sufficient intuitive feel for the negative value imposed on the opposition team when they are given possession of the ball in the shadow of their own goal post. That is, the “failure” to obtain points by punting into the coffin-corner or by giving up the ball on an unsuccessful fourth-down run attempt actually has significant positive value because the chances are that the opposing team will have to kick without advancing the ball very far, and our team will again receive the ball in excellent field position with an opportunity to score.

Now, the Seattle Seahawks are clearly not an average defense, and field-goal kickers have come a long way since the 1970s (e.g, this unbelievable kick by Justin Tucker that put me into the finals of my fantasy football league). Nevertheless, chances are when the Broncos call that timeout today to decide what to do on fourth down, they should probably put the ball in the hands of the man in the photo, or, as we like to call him in New York, Eli’s brother.

Note: This post has been updated to clarify that the Romer paper uses data from the first quarter of games, not the whole game. [h/t to @skoczela]